In late April, the city of Baltimore issued a certificate of demolition for the Morris A. Mechanic Theater, prevailing in a lengthy quest to destroy one of its most unique buildings. With a character somewhere between a stone-age helmet and a concrete cog, the nearly fifty-year-old building’s assertive structure has earned the affection of a small number of enthusiasts who embrace its almost oppressively functional style of architecture—and almost no one else. The theater, designed by the revered and often imperiled architect John Johansen, will be replaced by a condo.
The story of the Mechanic has become overly familiar. Brutalism, a muscular and monumental architectural style [...]
Sheer size is generally a strong guarantee of commercial longevity in American society. Consider Sport Utility Vehicles throughout almost every variation in gas prices. Consider the Big Gulp. But when it comes to some of our largest feats of construction—sporting facilities—immense size won’t usually even guarantee a lifespan as long as the most immemorable ranch home. How old is your house or residence? And how many people live there? The Houston Astrodome has a capacity of 67,925,and is 49 years old. It may not last to see 50.
Tastes are fickle, extortionate team demands are common, and the drive for novelty is endless, but the sheer inability of the greatest [...]
Drive-ins, you may have heard, are in trouble. Their decline has been distinct—and distinctly lamented—for more than 40 years, and yet they somehow never quite die off. Like newspaper comics, they are one of those beleaguered swatches of Americana that never quite give up. And yet there is a new crisis. Those some 360 or so drive-ins remaining, having weathered the rise of the television and the multiplex, declining attendance, and rising suburban real estate costs, face a new dire threat yet—digital projection.
Distributors are about to stop shipping 35 millimeter film and shift to entirely digital distribution. This is little hazard to commercial cinemas, but a clear peril to [...]
How to sum up a Surrealist's autobiography? I haven’t the slightest idea. Luis Buñuel's just-republished My Last Sigh contains, as you might expect, few concrete explanations of anything, but countless provisional manifestoes, an index of cinematic inspirations of bewildering range, more anecdotes than any human has a right to own (he narrowly missed that orgy organized by Charlie Chaplin, but did dismantle a Christmas tree at another party attended by Chaplin—other guests were not amused), and a surprisingly elegiac tone of melancholy. This provides a partial overview, but what else? There’s the family’s pet, an "enormous rat" that accompanied them on trips in a birdcage. This was presumably toted [...]
Tom Stoppard has likened screenwriting to writing left-handed, and while by this standard we have plenty of ambidextrous playwrights, few have displayed such a versatile command as he has. Stoppard's screenwriting credits have ranged from prestige adaptations of Nabokov, Graham Greene, and Tolstoy to writing several drafts of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and much of the dialogue in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Tony Kushner hasn't done that.)
Stoppard's latest project is Parade's End, a BBC/HBO 5-hour miniseries airing this week (it began yesterday) starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. The series is based on a quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford set in the years surrounding the First [...]
To attempt any ranking of David Bowie's work in movies on a scale of strangeness seems a fool's errand; there's no computer on earth that can tally up respective curiosity points for playing both Nikola Tesla and Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol and The Snowman, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Man Who Would Be Goblin King. That said, it's difficult to find a Bowie performance more abjectly forgotten—and yet so wonderfully bizarre—than the Weimar-set 1978 black comedy Just a Gigolo. Perhaps, you ponder, it was just a cameo? Nope, he's the star and the rest of the cast is filled out by—get this—Kim Novak, David Hemmings, Curt Jurgens, [...]
The House of Soviets in Kaliningrad. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin, from "CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed."
The architecture of the Eastern Bloc—a conundrum of impossible complexity, or at least that's what it looks like judging from the daily view of my collection of coffee table books. Yes, that's right, coffee table books. The recent glut of art volumes devoted to Soviet architecture may be surprising to anyone who previously thought "Soviet architecture" had about as much to do with "art" as "Soviet leaders" had to do with "glamour." Yet here is a whole bookshelf to contradict that view. There's Taschen's CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Hatje Cantz's [...]
Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago
Updating a cultural canon, in any form, is an endless battlefield due to our persistent tendencies, 1. to create ever more art and 2. to fail, just as rapidly, to agree on its value. Witness debates about revised editions of any literary anthology, or, say, the National Film Registry. At times worthy works receive just recognition; other times, age seems all that’s required to give mediocre works the gloss of historical grandeur. But let’s not get off track discussing Sex, Lies and Videotape vs. Forrest Gump. Rarely is the navigation of this question of aesthetic value more difficult and commercially charged than in architecture. After [...]