Archive for May, 2009

James A. Jefferys, American Painter (1889-1969)

Friday, May 15th, 2009

In the preface to his book of essays, “L’Envers et L’Endroit” (“The Wrong Side and the Right Side,” 1958), Albert Camus wrote:

I know this with sure and certain knowledge: a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Most people cannot claim the mantle of artist. Still, most of us face the same urge to recapture early joys. This is sometimes disparagingly referred to as “reliving your childhood.” You see it at baseball games, where old men sit in the stands vicariously joining in the play on the field. You see it when a new mother selects a first doll for her daughter. You saw it last year when many Americans who, 40 years before, had joined Robert F. Kennedy in his improbable and sadly aborted 100-day quest for the Presidency, found themselves rejuvenated by another political campaign powered by hope and renewal.

I love snow for a simple reason: it instantly transports me back to childhood. To capture that feeling and make it available in every season, I collect art depicting snow in the city. One of the pieces in my collection is this 10-by-12 inch oil sketch, “Drifting Snow,” dated 1910, of an intersection in Philadelphia:

James A. Jefferys, Drifting Snow, Manayunk, 1910

The artist, James A. Jefferys, lived in the city’s Manayunk neighborhood. He indicated the scene’s location in a hand-written inscription on the verso: “Drifting Snow. Sketched from 2nd floor front Room of H.D. Richards showing R.R. Gate Tender at Cresson & Short Leverings St Manayunk Phila 2-14-1910 By James A. Jefferys [?]20 Grape St”. To 21st century eyes, the picture’s most interesting detail may be the train engine entering from the right. There’s something odd about this vision of a train encroaching on an urban streetscape normally reserved for less daunting vehicles. It puts me in a surrealistic mood. I’m ready to imagine the train’s next stop is someone’s living room, as recorded in Magritte’s painting, “Time Transfixed.”

Historical notes: In 1929-1930, Reading Railroad replaced the Cresson Street train tracks with an elevated structure. The name Manayunk is derived from the Lenape Indian word “manaiung“, which means “river” or “where we go for drink.” Manayunk is an old blue-collar industrial neighborhood (textile and paper mills thrived in the 19th century) currently undergoing gentrification. It rises from the banks of the Schuylkill upriver from Wissahicken Creek, a few miles from center-city Philadelphia.

As for the artist, a Google search uncovered only sparse information about James Jefferys’ presence in Manayunk. Geneology sites contain references that supply birth and death dates of 1889-1969 and show his continual presence in Philadelphia (interrupted by service in World War I).  Yet I’ve found nothing about his activity as a painter; no records of his artistic training, exhibitions, or awards.  Possibly he was a self-taught artist.  The 1910 painting shows a careful but tentative hand of a novice painter (he was only 21 at the time) uninfluenced by academic training. He kept painting, though. Possibly he worked in a related field such as sign-making, illustration, advertising or publishing. This early sketch reveals an intuitive sense of atmosphere and color. To my taste the painting is pleasing and very American.

Three years after buying the snow sketch I came across, at auction, another painting by Jefferys that I thought would be a fine addition to the collection. I was happy to place the winning bid for this 1938 oil on canvas:

J.A. Jefferys, "Boone & Grape Sts., Manayunk"

[Boone and Grape Streets, Manayunk, oil on canvas, 1938, 20 x 24 inches, signed and dated lower left recto; inscribed on verso: “Boone & Grape Sts / J.A. Jefferys / 4310 Terrace ST / Myk PA”.  Rago Arts and Auction Center, Lambertville, NJ, Fine Art Auction, May 15, 2008, Lot 226.]

Jefferys’ note on the verso of the smaller snow scene, done nearly three decades before this painting, placed his residence somewhere on Grape Street. This means he would have been very familiar with the street’s trecherous upper reaches, depicted here. The Terrace Street address  listed on the back of the 1938 work places him just two short blocks from Boone and Grape. I imagine him walking out the front door of his modest row house one cold day during the Great Depression, turning left up Terrace Street. A few steps into his trek he thinks twice about whether to take a detour down the steep Cotton Street steps leading directly to Boone.  He decides to keep on the safer sidewalk, on up to Grape Street, where he turns left to make the final trudge downhill to the intersection at Boone. There, in front of him, is a scene of immediate activity and distant calm. He is glad to have come upon something demanding to be captured on canvas.

What were Jefferys’ working methods as an artist? Did he do a pencil sketch then and there? Did he bring a camera? Or did he leave the house carrying a fresh canvas, easel, and plein air materials, instinctively knowing this would be a productive day?

If you stand at the same vantage point today, as you can do in absentia thanks to Google Maps Street View, it is clear Jefferys took some liberties with distant perspective, bending space to create a more thrilling atmosphere. That is what artists do.

Repeating elements seen in his 1910 sketch, the upper portion of the picture features mills and factories, the soft hills beyond the river, and finally a spacious wintry gray sky. But Jefferys’  talents have moved well beyond the primitive mode of 1910, now embracing a style similar to that of John Sloan and of a younger cohort of social realist painters who emerged in the 1930s. He has well captured in paint a landscape cushioned in white, the cold air alive. He introduces a stronger narrative. The foreground tableau is a tale of play and toil, where boys’ shouts compete with the muffled metalic scraping  of shovels handled by the old man at left and old woman at right. Tiresome work is consigned to the margins, peripheral to the central energy of sledders, who evade a snowball fight and zoom like dare-devils deeper into the world.

I am struck by how the composition, whether by chance or intention, is so reminiscent of one of the most beloved paintings in art history, Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.


In an interesting  online essay entitled, “How Can We Be Composed?- Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow,” Nancy Huntting quotes from Eli Siegel’s commentary in Art as Composition:

“Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow is a picture that tells us, Everything can be composed. Lines can be composed. The general direction of the picture is at a slant, or diagonal; the trees are assertively vertical; there are horizontal lines with the snow. Varying white shapes differ and coalesce. Houses, as volumes, mingle with snow as weight, and with space. Birds are diagonal, vertical, horizontal. The immediate in the picture mingles with a various middle ground, and a spacious, rising, misty background. Here is reality’s plenty caught hold of by Bruegel and arranged.”

Siegel’s formal analysis helps explain why a painting is so arresting. But it forgets the power of the sentimental elements (using the “s” word in its non-pejorative sense) of a painting — elements which, to an opened heart, provide pleasures all their own.


UPDATE (August 2009)

In the Comments section, below, you’ll find an email from the artist’s grandson, Jim Jefferys, who came across this blog posting and wrote to me in June, 2009.  A few months later he sent along some photos and these additional information about his grandfather’s artistic efforts:

“The first picture is a snow scene with a chimney in center (oil on canvas, rather large – 36 inches square). This painting was to be given to the first male Jefferys in each generation. After me it goes to my son. … The painting I’m told was a fireplace that my great, great grandfather built when he came to this country. The building, after years and years of neglect, is the way my grand father saw it and painted it on a snowy day. A lot of his snow scenes were painted outdoors when it was snowing. My aunt can tell you he would take her as a little girl sledding in Manyunk, with oils, brushes and easel in tow. So, that’s the answer to your one question — he did paint in the snow.”

Copy of pic25679

“The second picture is the old Mill inn in Hatboro PA. which still stands to this day. [Note: unfortunately, the JPEG file for this painting could not be opened.] I was born and raised in that area. This building is still there and even though it has had renovations it still looks the same. The painting (watercolor) was completed on the day I was born. It was given to my father the next day for him to hold for me. Third picture (oil on canvas) is of Valley Green in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The building still there today and looks the same. I used to go trout fishing there when I was 16 years of age. It was one of my father’s favorite pictures.”

Copy of pic13043

“Fourth picture [JPEG file was not openable] is a castle in Germany he did during  WWI (oil on canvas). He also did a portrait of Von Hindenburg when he was there after Germany surrendered. That picture is around somewhere, as one of the relatives has it. Fifth picture [JPEG file not openable] is a small painting of a run-down farmhouse (oil on canvas). I don’t know anything about it, just that I liked it and my grandfather gave it to me after I graduated from high school. Sixth picture is a watercolor of Dad’s Place in North Wildwood, NJ. It is still there and I was with my grandfather when he started the painting , back when we did not have bug spray for green flies, etc. I asked for the painting and he gave it to me. He knew if he gave it to me I would not forget the good times I had going to the shore with him.”

Copy of pic01563

“Seventh picture is down the shore somewhere, probably the same area,      but this home is probably gone from storms now. It was a twin set (my    sister has the other) and was painted the same summer as the Dad’s Place picture.”

Copy of pic25834


UPDATE (September 2014)

Here are photos of a 1942 watercolor by the artist, depicting the church and rectory of Saint John the Baptist in Manayunk. These photos were provided to me recently by Rev. John J. Kelly (see Comments section) who found the picture in a back room of the rectory. He writes: “The painting is quite realistic and a fine depiction of Rector street. On the left is Saint John’s, two schools and the  Church which still stands. On the Right is the Rectory  which still stands; so too do the walls at the top of the street and on Rector street.  It appears that the houses are all still intact. What is noticeably different is at the bottom of Rector street there is no high wall and SEPTA train tracks are missing from the painting.”




For comparison purposes, below is a detail of Jefferys’ 1938 painting, Boone and Grape St., Manayunk, showing the spire of Saint John the Baptist church and the roofs of two schools, from a higher perspective.



UPDATE – April 2015:

A new Google search for “James A. Jefferys” uncovered additional biographical information. The future artist was born in March of 1889 and died in July of 1969. The year 1938, when Jefferys painted the snow scene he titled Boone and Grape Street, Manayunk, shown at the beginning of this article, was a year of tragedy for the artist. In 1938 he lost both of his parents: (James Jefferys, 1851-1938) and mother (Anna Judge, 1864-1938).

The July 18, 1969 edition of the Des Moine Register newspaper published a short obituary for James A. Jefferys. It provides intriguing details about the artist’s early years:

“James A. Jefferys, 80, a portrait and landscape artist who painted European royally at the front during World War I, [died] in Philadelphia. He painted portraits of King Albert of Belgium and the Prince of Wales and later Edward VIII when they visited the front. He also made pen and brush sketches of battles.”

The Manifesto of Thompson Hotels

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

A mission statement spells out a company’s overall purpose and provides a sense of direction to decision making.  Among other things, it defines what the organization aspires to be.

The other day a friend sent me a link to a curious document that fits the general notion of a mission statement, although this one is labeled a “Manifesto.”  It also fills up an entire page, making it wordier than the run-of-the-mill mission statement.

The Manifesto was generated by Thompson Hotels, a wholly owned subsidiary of a privately held real estate development firm named The Pomeranc Group.  In 2007 the New York Times profiled the company’s entry into the world of boutique hotels.  The firm’s growing portfolio now includes nine hotel properties.

If you go to Thompson Hotels’ black-backgrounded homepage at you’ll be faced with a flashing series of quotations.  Featured are the words of luminaries such as Che Guevara, Bob Dylan, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Oscar Wilde, and Jean Baudrillard.  I noticed that in the hotelier’s talky firmament, the French post-structuralist Baudrillard’s star shines brightest.  Two of his bons mots are offered for your delectation.  Meanwhile, in the background, hip music is heard.  An infinitely repeating loop plays a medley of eight instrumental selections, each abbreviated to 30 seconds.   The overall mood?  Retro groovy.  I felt smothered by an über trendy ooze.

If you visit the homepage, and I recommend you do, be sure to click on the word “MANIFESTO” found in the top border.  Or access the manifesto directly, here.  On that page you’re invited to test whether your personal identity matches the profile of an ideal guest as conceived by the hotel owners.  Here is the text of the Manifesto:


Dear Guest,

In a world full of choices, we all need to question who we are and where we belong.

We set out to create a group of hotels that are effectively sophisticated and classically cool but small enough to provide personal service. Thompson Hotels are contemporary and elegant with an element of edge and surprise. At Thompson Hotels we believe there’s a place for refined, intimate style in a world of overly dressed up mega brands. We are not trendy boutique hotels. Our style is simultaneously timeless and avant-garde.

Who are our guests? Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance; really more of a mind-set than a demographic… “good looking revolutionaries.”

We wish we had known: Steve McQueen, Bobby Kennedy, Mick Jagger in 1973, Grace Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Edie Sedgwick and the fictional Royal Tenenbaums.

You’ll find us watching Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes, Badlands, Blow Up, Le Mans. Or listening to The White Album, the Sex Pistols, Sinatra and we don’t pick sides between the East Coast and the West Coast.

We collect Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, vintage Zippo lighters, matchbooks from cafes, quotes and one day, Basquiat.

We are a tribe, nomadic in nature joined by common threads. We are driving up the coast to a life of epic adventures… “It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… but no matter the road is life”: Jack Kerouac.

See you soon,


p.s. we will keep all your secrets and promises.


The term “fisking” is blogosphere slang for a point-by-point criticism of a statement, article or essay.  The fisking process involves questioning the analytical framework of the text and highlighting perceived errors.  It values close scrutiny, so the dissection usually proceeds sentence-by-sentence or paragraph-by-paragraph.  After reading the Thompson Hotels Manifesto, I thought, “Now there’s a document begging for a good fisking!”  I’m not sure I’m the man for the task, but what the heck, it’s worth a try.  Below is my token gift to art-house wise-asses everywhere.  Especially those who, due to their good judgment or bad finances or both, are destined never to find themselves embedded in a Thompson Hotel.

Caveat: It is possible the Manifesto is a small hoax, a put-on, a tongue-in-cheek bit of cheekiness designed to separate those who get it from those who don’t.  By the same token, maybe my text below is too.

So.  Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

In a world full of choices, we all need to question who we are and where we belong.

Come on, confess.  When you read that first sentence, sounding so eerily like an invocation, an invitation to prayer, you sensed a spiritual touch, did you not?  Maybe a tingle of  déjà vu ? Oops!  Lo and behold, the sentiment does fit nicely on a Church Sign:



We set out to create a group of hotels that are effectively sophisticated and classically cool but small enough to provide personal service. Thompson Hotels are contemporary and elegant with an element of edge and surprise.

Having established in the reader’s mind the notion of sanctuary, of a time and place for spiritual self-evaluation, the authors of the Manifesto decided to drop that idea cold.  Instead, it’s full steam ahead!  On to a relentless chug-chug-chug of words!  The modus operandi is simple.  Throw down words and phrases in hopes that something coherent will emerge.  The document becomes an onslaught of adjectives, adverbs, oxymorons and proper names.  Scatter shot onto the page, you watch them pile up into an enervating mass.  You encounter novel compounds (“effectively sophisticated”) as inert as the arbitrary pairings formed when kids fiddle with Magnetic Poetry words on a refrigerator door.

But let’s move on to the next bit of nonsense.

At Thompson Hotels we believe there’s a place for refined, intimate style in a world of overly dressed up mega brands. We are not trendy boutique hotels.

I like how a simple declarative sentence (“We are not trendy …”) stands out amidst the lazy mush (“overly dressed up mega brands”).  It turns out this defensive crouch (“We are not!”) has a back story:  one of Thompson Hotels’ co-owners has been quoted elsewhere as saying, “If you call us a boutique hotel chain, I’m going to scream.”  He prefers the term, small luxury hotel group.  The reason has something to do with branding and status.  But I am not Winston Smith (nor was meant to be) and shall not revise my text.

The term “Boutique hotel”  is commonly used to describe intimate, usually luxurious or quirky hotel environments — exactly the environment the Manifesto, however clumsily, purports to describe.  Check out Wikipedia’s article on the “boutique hotel” phenomenon for a consensus understanding of the term. The unavoidable fact is that these hotels are inherently trendy, occupying a segment of the industry characterized by constant churn, where players forever chase the next wave.

Historically, boutique hotels (sometimes also known as “design hotels” or “lifestyle hotels”) began appearing in the 1980s in trend-setting neighborhoods of London, New York, and San Francisco.  Typically, boutique hotels are furnished in a themed, stylish and/or “aspirational” manner.  The mission, the raison d’être, of Thompson Hotels is to participate profitably in this trend.

When responding to an absurd assertion, I often find it useful to summon the the clarity of the French.  What’s the best way to view a trendy Manifesto eschewing trendiness?  Comme ça:


Though not as deft as Magritte playing with the way we attribute significance to images, the Manifesto does serve the purpose of highlighting a complicated relationship between the company’s self-definition and reality.

Our style is simultaneously timeless and avant-garde.

Reading this sentence, I was momentarily intrigued.  I like timeless.  On occasion I also like avant-garde.  The Manifesto brings them together again for the first time.  What’s not to like?  Should I worry about how stable the marriage is?  No, for the moment I’m willing to play along, especially since the sentence sparks a frisson. There’s an echo of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In “Burnt Norton,” the first segment of that magisterial poem, Eliot posits:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present,

All time in unredeemable.

Along those lines, did you notice the verse from Hebrews 13:8 on the Church Sign, above?  Jesus is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow.  The Manifesto promises your stay at a Thompson Hotel will be just like that too! Heavy, man.  Could be heavenly, too.  But this has got my head spinning.

I know once reason returns I will understand there is no way to halt what The Bard called “time’s fell hand” — especially not in the trendy business of boutique hotels.  After all, we’re talking about an industry in which a Thompsons Hotels co-owner cited with amazement the extraordinary “longevity” of an employee who’s been with the firm a whopping six years!  There are reports the company’s Gild Hall location in lower Manhattan (open for less than two years) is slated for a style makeover, as its star restaurateur is being replaced.  The company used to boast about its free Wi-Fi, but this year reversed its stance in favor of charging guests an extra $10.00 a day.

Timeless?  I report, you decide.

But take heed.  Clouds approach.  Pretentious gobbledygook lies straight ahead.

Who are our guests? Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance; really more of a mind-set than a demographic…

I was going to point out hyphenation flaws and other nits throughout the Manifesto (for those interested, a useful hyphen guide is found here; don’t say you’re learning nothing from this post).  But the prospect of correcting wrong notes in this Bohemian rhapsody reminded me of the scene in Basic Instinct when Michael Douglas (Detective Curran) comes upon the injured George Dzundza (Gus), who’s been attacked with an ice pick.  Curran tentatively applies a finger to block the bleeding from Gus’s neck.  But then he notices, in a growing panic, the full extent of the punctures.  He quickly runs out of fingers to stanch all of Gus’s fatal wounds.

I know, I know — you’re still wishing that the chain of “blah-meets-blah-meets-blah” would meet up with a meat cleaver.  And I’m reminded that the “fisking” process compels me to propose a remedial measure.  OK, then.  Let’s add one more hookup to the chain: Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance meets Freddy Krueger.

(Really more of a cathartic comeuppance than in your fondest dreams.)

“good looking revolutionaries”

Yes, Thompson Hotels defines its preferred clientele as persons who qualify as good looking revolutionaries.

Where to begin?  Smug, self-satisfied, and fatuous, this loose phrase sinks into a swamp of cynicism.  The concept of “good looking revolutionaries” belongs to a place where prices are known and values ignored.  Where everything is superficial, cosmetic, trivialized, reduced to fashion.  As for the not pretty faces and imperfect bodies of today’s equivalents of, say, Emma Goldman, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, Betty Friedan, Balzac, Gandhi?

Oh for God’s sake, we don’t want the likes of them spoiling our hotels.

We wish we had known: Steve McQueen, Bobby Kennedy, Mick Jagger in 1973, Grace Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Edie Sedgwick and the fictional Royal Tenenbaums.

These appear to be the hotelier’s picks for the class of good looking revolutionaries.  The introductory clause (“We wish we had known …”) sets up the sad premise that these are folks no longer available to be known.  They’ve passed on.  They’re now guests at the Celestial Hotel.  Or, in the case of the still prancing Mick Jagger, his 1973-vintage incarnation (beautiful at age 30) cannot stroll through a Thompson Hotel lobby in 2009.

The prefatory language also presupposes that the persons cited were all once capable of being known, i.e., their feet once trod the earth.  News Flash:  Fictional characters, such as members of the Tenenbaum family, the clan given cinematic life by writer-director Wes Anderson, were never in fact alive.  Trust me on this.  If “we” harbor a desire to commune with fictional beings, the first thing to do is to express that desire using different rhetoric.  For example:  “I wish Holden Caulfield were a real person so that I might have a chance to talk with him.”

The second thing is, “we” need to schedule an appointment with a therapist.

You’ll find us watching Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes, Badlands, Blow Up, Le Mans. Or listening to The White Album, the Sex Pistols, Sinatra and we don’t pick sides between the East Coast and the West Coast.

An orgy of mid-cult name-dropping, these selections sound like a basket of DVD’s and CD’s that Charlie the Tuna might gather for his undersea lair.  To prove his eclectic good taste.

Note the strangely truncated name (“Darko”) applied to writer-director Richard Kelley’s 2001 film, Donnie Darko. A Google search uncovers no evidence of actual people — whether they qualify as good looking revolutionaries or not — using the name “Darko” when discussing that movie.  Maybe Thompson Hotels is trying to start a new trend?  Say it ain’t so.

Next, notice the boast, “You’ll find us watching . . . Blow Up.”   Hmmmm.   It’s at this point that the needle on the Creepy-o-Meter starts to dance.  Remember, this is a Manifesto presumably concocted by sophisticated advertising copywriters (correction: make that effectively sophisticated copywriters), then reviewed and approved by company management, one of whom promises to “scream” if confronted with words or terms he finds inaccurate.  This means the Manifesto cannot be referring to the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film, “Blowup”.  As shown in the screen credits (one frame of which is below), the title of Antonioni’s film is one word.  While it is true the title appears hyphenated on some promotional and packaging material (as in the poster further below), it is never correct to render the title as two separate words.




Assume, then, that the Manifesto’s reference to a “Blow Up” signals something else.  What might that be?  One clue is that this “Blow Up” is something that can be “watched.”  More particularly, it is something that you will find “us” watching.  So let’s take a step back and ask, who are the “us”?  Remember, the Manifesto is addressed to an anonymous “Guest” and is signed by “TH.”  So “us” likely is the hotel itself, as represented by its owners, managers and staff.  Or does “us” refer to the hotels’ guests?  Or to both groups?  What are they watching when they watch this thing called a — or the— Blow Up?  An act of violence involving an explosion?  A sex act?  Both?  Maybe posting a third quotation from Baudrillard would help readers solve the puzzle?  We must work through the night to find the answer; otherwise, I fear grave consequences.  Dawn may expose a pale, naked Manifesto, shorn of its raiments of erudition; a document written, edited and approved by a cadre of folks who, notwithstanding their air of knowingness, in the final analysis are (yes, it pains me to type the sentence’s final word, even though its etymology is French) poseurs.

We collect Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, vintage Zippo lighters, matchbooks from cafes, quotes and one day, Basquiat.

More trendy brand names and other detritus.  Spare me.  This recalls a short-lived literary trend of a few decades ago, led by a set of young novelists.  They wrote prose with copious references to trendy high-end consumer goods, discos, real life celebrities, and other pop culture stuffing.  Their theory was that in our consumerist society, what you eat, wear, listen to, where you go clubbing, how you furnish your apartment, the famous people you encounter — all of that stuff taken together equals your identity.  Therefore, a list of a fictional character’s recent purchases would be a valid shorthand way to construct in the reader’s mind a fully-formed fictional personage.  The Manifesto shares this bleak and shallow world view.  It tacitly endorses the notion that you are what you consume.

In the present text, I was glad to find a soupçon of wisdom hidden in the final words of the sentence:  “… and one day, Basquiat.”  Implied are the principles of connoisseurship and deferred pleasure.  Collecting the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat demands maturity and a lot of groundwork.  Accumulating money, of course.  Finding a house or apartment with tall ceilings.  Most critically, developing a discerning eye — something especially important with an artist like Basquiat whose output was of notoriously uneven quality.  Assuming I’m not reading too much into those four words, the author deserves kudos for that little grace note.

We are a tribe, nomadic in nature joined by common threads. We are driving up the coast to a life of epic adventures… “It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… but no matter the road is life”: Jack Kerouac.

True to form, a return to folderol.  I’m hoping you, dear reader, will join with me in announcing that we are growing bored by all the silly talk coming from this other “we.”  It occurs to me that you and I together are a “we” superior to the Manifesto’s “we.”  We possess largeness; the author of the Manifesto’s gotta wee “we.”

(The silliness is spreading.)

As for the tribal and nomadic references, I defer to another reader of the Manifesto, a person known as “jr”.  He (or, if “jr” is initials, maybe she) left a comment back in May, 2008, on a blog named Harry’s Place, in response to a piece about the Manifesto.  The commenter looked at the document as a marketing effort:

I suspect the purpose of the marketing is to make you think you will be more lucky to fuck an equally desparate fellow guest at this hotel and not feel too seedy afterwards.  “We are a tribe, nomadic in nature and joined by common threads” means “we want some casual nooky and we’re not thinking too much about herpes.”

Was “JR” weirdly prescient?  In 2009, Alexander Wang’s limited edition designer condoms became available for purchase exclusively at Thompson Hotels properties.

p.s.  we will keep all your secrets and promises.

My secret, which is not much of a secret, is that I have never been mistaken for a good looking revolutionary (alas).  If you ask what I myself will keep, the answer is, I will keep my money — far away from the hands of Thompson Hotels.

That I promise.

Frank Gehry Scores Big With Disney Concert Hall

Monday, May 4th, 2009

As with all great works of architecture, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (completed in 2003) richly rewards visitors willing to engage their senses, reconnoiter the structure, enter its interior courtyards, experience the squeeze and release through tight and open spaces, enjoy its forms and gestures, admire its skin in changing light, absorb its physical beauty, and breathe sympathetically with its rhythms.

Professional photographers of the structure usually try to capture the totality of its iconic presence, highlighting the mass of shapes Gehry based on sailing, “wing on wing, the wind behind you.”


Rarely is the building photographed from a ground level perspective directly across South Grand Avenue.  (In the photo above, you see a bit of the street’s asphalt in the lower left corner.)  This may be for the simple reason that the six-lane corridor is a noisy crossing, a sorry, off-putting, quotidian presence estranged from the visionary building emerging from its flank.  Then too, Gehry fans may be avoiding photographing the site from that perspective for fear of adding support to a common criticism of Gehry’s designs: that his buildings do not seem to relate “organically” to their surroundings.  And yet by standing on the east side of South Grand Avenue you’ll find yourself in the best position to see a defining architectural detail.

Google Maps, through its street view function, allows you to “walk” — or more accurately, to “drive” — past the street level facade.  Unfortunately, individual photos taken from the drive-by Google Van are of disappointing quality, as evident in the two screenshots below.



Flickr and other photo sharing sites contain pictures with finer resolution.  Here is a virtually identical shot, from a slightly more oblique angle (credit: core.formula on Flickr):


Finally, here is a full frontal shot, apparently taken from across the street (the ideal vantage point), looking straight-on at the sidewalk entrance to the building:


All four photos include the detail that is of interest to me.  Focus for a moment on the base of the composition and the single, wide, rectangular shape that swoops across and projects outward from the building.  Of the dozen or so curving pieces or individual “sails” that comprise the skin of the structure, this one stands apart somehow.  Viewed unkindly, you might conclude it is an afterthought, an empty, ungainly, tacked-on piece, a doodle, a patch protecting the lowest portion of the building.  I disagree.  I think  it is different for a reason.  There are clues, if we open our eyes.

This particular piece has a more subtle rotation, is less of an arabesque, and more of a standard shape, than the other pieces.  Although made of unadorned sheet metal (stainless steel), it manages also to look like a blank billboard, floating with no apparent support above glass walls and doors.  Stretched horizontally with a slight incline from left to right, the entire form seems to be lifting up to grant you entrance to the ground floor.  Viewed in isolation, it is a kind of tabula rasa.

So, if the other individual pieces are whimsical cut-outs, enjoyable for their own sakes, what extra meaning does this frontal plane possess?  What does it remind you of?  What is it referencing?  Or, to ask the question another way, what do you want to project upon it?

One reference, consistent with the theme of the building as a whole, might be to a nautical flag flowing in a sustaining light breeze.  Although this is a reasonable thought, I think Gehry’s intention was something else entirely.

On closer inspection you notice ten horizontal lines of crimping, ten visible seams if you count the top and bottom edges as “lines.”  (This is best seen in the next-to-last photo above; in person, the lines are even more plain to the eye.)  As a matter of engineering, of course, these lines are merely the residue of a structural technique binding expanses of sheet metal, lapping the pieces together.  You may also notice that scores of  individual stainless steel sheets are the constituent notes making up the whole.  These small units (rectangles positioned horizontally) together compose a similarly-shaped, but much larger form.  This may be an example of a phenomenon mathematicians call self-similarity.

The horizontal, seamed striations lend a pronounced grain to the convex swoosh, reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s brushstroke paintings and prints from the mid-1960s:



So we have an unfurled nautical flag and the choreography of a painter’s brushstrokes — both suitable ideas to associate with the architecture of this cultural center.   But I return again to the singularity of that expansive sheet above the entrance, to its discernible separateness even while it participates in the dance of the overall composition.  I think it wants to communicate something on its own.

It wants to sing.

Step back a moment and ask, What is the purpose of this complex building?  To house a particular form of art: music.  Philosophers devoted to the study of aesthetics consider music to be the highest form of art.  Music is unencumbered by the compromise of physical form.  It avoids constraints afflicting sculpture, dance, and architecture.  Goethe declared that architecture is frozen music.  It would not be surprising if a thoughtful and gifted architect such as Frank Gehry, tasked with designing a grand physical container for music making, were to choose to comment on this subject somewhere in his design of the Disney Concert Hall.  I think what Gehry decided to say is writ large in that floating blank sheet with ten horizontal lines.  Or, inching closer to the answer, he’s saying something ought to be writ large there.

As in Poe’s The Purloined Letter, the object of our search may be hidden in plain sight, so obvious that it becomes all too easy to overlook.

Remember that Gehry is a leader in adopting new tools to assist in the visualization, modeling, and execution of his visionary designs.  A man who cares passionately about the tools of architecture would no doubt reflect on the tools of the sister art, music, that his commission has bound him to serve.  (A side note: When I attended the final performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s inaugural season at Disney Hall, I saw Gehry and his wife in their customary seats; the architect is an inveterate concert-goer.)

What I believe Gehry has chosen to emblazon across the entrance to his work is a replica of — an homage to — the essential tool for the communication and dissemination of music.  Here is the transformation:




The Grand Staff of music — a framework upon which notes are marked in relation to ten lines, five above middle C and five below — has in Gehry’s hands become a grand architectural gesture.  Remember also that this place is the Walt Disney Concert Hall — a place where imagination, creativity, and engineering magic can turn a pre-scored skin of metal into a giant treble clef (there to hold an unfolding melody) and an equally giant bass clef (there to host a supportive harmony).

A place where music begins.


UPDATE 07-13-2009:  A different Lichtenstein print, created in 1995, recently came to my attention.  Roy and Frank, humming the same tune: