Drive-In Saturday:
Nothing Beats the Great Smell of Brutalism

Lines and testures by Loozrboy

Brutalism: it's the 20th Century architectural style so many Love to Hate. Marked by harsh, unfinished concrete surfaces, windowless or admitting light from Caligarian angles, the style has become associated with cold authority and faceless bureaucracy, perhaps best exemplified by the much loathed City Hall in Boston.

Brutalist buildings have come in handy to suit the needs of a certain sort of filmmaker.  While they tend to be seen now as relics from an unfortunate past, locked into the era of the late 1950s to mid-1960s, Brutalist structures have served well in film as shorthand for The Dystopic Future.

CFCF is the nom sonique for Montreal-based producer/synthesist Michael Silver, whose most recent release,The River, is reported to have been inspired by Werner Herzog's cautionary tale for opera lovers, Fitzcarraldo.  While Herzog is the progenitor of the music on the River, this video for an alternate version of the track "It Was Never Meant to Be This Way" looks to a different film maker: David Cronenberg.  The moody pulse of the piece is accompanied by radically reedited sequences from Stereo, one of Cronenberg's earliest films, made in 1969 and shot in and around the University of Toronto's Scarborough College, then about two years old.  Brutalist unease is on display in abundance. 


Stereo in its original form moves much more slowly than the edited music video version.  It lacks the explicitly nasty physical violence for which Cronenberg is known, but it touches on many of the themes that have marked Cronenberg's work for the rest of his career: mental telepathy, radical sexual tension shading into violent expression, science as at best untrustworthy and often actively malevolent, and so on.

The film purports to document a series of experiments conducted by a Dr. Stringfellow of the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry (CAEE), in which a group of subjects have been surgically and chemically altered to render them telepaths and placed together for observation.  The experiment is not, as you will have guessed, a complete success.  Several subjects commit suicide.  One is reported to have eased his mental tension by drilling a hole in his own skull—an incident that is described but never shown, as it necessarily would have been in any later Cronenberg film. Erotic tension, expressed and otherwise, abounds.  Breasts—healthy, natural, Canadian—are occasionally exposed.  There is a great deal of ambiguity concerning what is actually happening at any given moment, whether events are playing out in chronological sequence, et cetera.  It has its charms, but is ultimately not so interesting to watch as this description may be making it seem.

Cronenberg filmed Stereo without sound, reportedly because his equipment was too noisy to make live recording of dialog practicable.  The film's soundtrack instead consists of a series of voiceovers, purportedly by CAEE scientists, punctuating long silent sequences that often move at the truly glacial pace so beloved of self-consciously serious film makers of the late 1960s. The black and white cinematography—Cronenberg shot and edited the film himself—effectively heightens the off-putting architecture: large physically empty spaces become spiritually empty and more than somewhat threatening in themselves.  Personally, I find the architecture more interesting than anything that is happening in it.

Here, for those who have an hour available, is the complete original version of Stereo:


I have a personal favorite Brutalist building: the University Art Museum [now the Berkeley Art Museum] and Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley. Constructed between 1967 and 1970—and therefore still relatively new when I got there in 1974—the Museum is structured internally as a series of descending terraces, arcing around nautilus-like from top to bottom. The topmost gallery was (and presumably stil is) devoted to displaying the Museum's substantial holdings of the work of abstractionist Hans Hoffman.  The exposed concrete works remarkably well as a display environment, particularly but not exclusively for modern and contemporary work. Natural light penetrates the space well, making it a surprisingly airy pile o' slabs on a sunny day.

Berkeley Art Museum - by Gay Swan

Regrettably, the Museum building has been found to be seismically deficient—something of a concern when a branch of the San Andreas Fault is literally only a few blocks away.  Additional support structures have been added, keeping the place open but somewhat compromising the original design. The current building will, however, be closed in the next few years and the Museum and Film Archive moved to a new location in downtown Berkeley, still to be constructed.

I assume demolition will be the ultimate fate of the original Museum building.  That saddens me, because I am surprisingly sentimental about the place after spending so much time inside it in my Bright College Days. (I say "surprisingly" because Brutalism is an obvious nominee for Least Cuddly Architectural Philosophy Ever.)  Perhaps, after the collections have been moved downtown and before the wrecking ball arrives, some enterprising filmmaker can put the space to use one last time, to preserve its memory.  Or as a cool place in which to whack zombies.


Top Photo: "Lines and Textures," University of Toronto Scarborough, photograph by Flickr user Loozrboy, used under Creative Commons license.

Middle Photo: Postcard image, ca. 1967, of Scarborough College, via Toronto Modern.

Bottom Photo: Interior, Berkeley Art Museum, 2008, photo by Gay Swan, via


L'art du l'Aventure

On our weekend gallivant into the wine country of Paso Robles, my fellow boondogglers and I paid a call to L'Aventure, where Stephan Asseo produces some of the very finest wines now emerging from California. (Oh, if only they weren't priced in proportion to their quality . . . .)

The winery/tasting room building now sports a mural by French artist Erwin Dazelle, in the graffiti-influenced street art style so beloved of contemporary sophisticates such as C-Monster (whose many photos of such things can be seen here).

Four of this fool's photos follow:






Over There, Over There

While posts have been slow here the past few days, I have been more active than usual on my legal weblog, Declarations and Exclusions.  Two recent posts on that site could just as well have been posted here.  (Like Hamlet, I am a man who cannot make up his mind.) 

Please click yourself in that direction if I might interest you in

  • An architectural consideration of the new federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon.  The courthouse was designed by award-winning bad-boy Thomas Mayne, and my post comes equipped with a title invoking both Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd.

Actual legal and public policy topics have also been on my mind at Decs&Excs lately, if you are inclined to that sort of thing.  More foolishness here anon.

Spots, Pores, Dripping Briars

Flattery always slipped off the Prince like water off the leaves of a water lily: it is one of the advantages enjoyed by men who are at once proud and used to being so. 'This fellow here seems to be under the impression he's come to do me a great honor,' he was thinking. 'To me, who am what I am, among other things a Peer of the Kingdom of Sicily, which must be more or less the same as a Senator. It's true that one must value gifts in relation to those who offer them; when a peasant gives me his bit of cheese he's making me a bigger present that the Prince of Làscari when he invites me to dinner. That's obvious. The difficulty is that the cheese is nauseating. So all that remains is the heart's gratitude, which can't be seen, and the nose wrinkled in disgust, which can be seen only too well.'

-- Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Returned from a Long Day's Journey Through Deposition -- from which I have emerged with exactly the same understanding of the strengths and weakness of the case as I had before, but a much better understanding of why they are the strengths and weaknesses of the case -- the occasion calls for a Quote From Whatever I Happen to Be Reading Just Now, and a string of unrelated but interesting links. Behold:

♣ Apropos of my endorsement of Professor Ann Althouse's weblog, how can one resist a post with the 18th-century-novelesque title: "A new TV arrives, DVDs are deployed to test its quality, and, a propos of Kerry's new tan, the subject of disease perceived as health is discussed"? One cannot, and you mustn't.

♣ Portland, Oregon's finest (weblog division), Michael J. Totten, explores the soul-blasting architectural horror that is the suburbs . . . of Paris.

♣ Cowtown Pattie knows it's hard to be a Texan when your pores are unrefined: "Just mention sleeping with day-old makeup on at the female powerlunch table and you are greeted with rows of raised, but deftly waxed eyebrows, giving the eerie feeling of having lunch with a group of hoot owls."

♣ Doctor-poet-modernist giant William Carlos Williams would have been 121 years old a couple of weeks ago, which is as good an excuse as any to link back to Jonathan Mayhew's mid-June post pointing out the virtue to be found in even the late, flawed work of a genuinely interesting poet. [Go ahead, click through, if only to read the poem, "Raindrops on a Briar."] ::: wood s lot ::: noted the birthday with an abundance of WCW links, a nice reproduction of Breughel's Kermesse to accompany the poem it inspired and, down below and worth the scroll, Kenneth Koch's hilarious Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams (which sends up this well known WCW poem, but you already knew that).

Gettysburg 2: A Battle Over Monuments

In addition to my own geneological connection to the Battle of Gettysburg described below, there is another bond between those fields of southern Pennsylvania and the greater Los Angeles area, by way of architecture.

Cyclorama Center design drawing

One of the attractions of the Gettysburg battlefield since 1962 has been The Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 359 feet long, 27 feet high, 360 degree view of Pickett's Charge painted by Paul Philippoteaux in 1884. The Cyclorama is housed, for the time being, in a building designed by Richard Neutra, generally regarded as a giant of post-war California architecture. The Cyclorama Center is Neutra's most prominent building east of the Mississippi, and as reported in a long article in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine, it is slated to be demolished in 2007. (The article link requires registration, but does not seem to be behind the dreadful Calendar Live pay barrier, which is itself rumored soon to be torn down.) The actual painting is to be carefully and expensively restored, then relocated to a new location and new building at a less historically important location a half mile away, but the building and all traces of it are to be erased. As described in the article, the Cyclorama Center is the loser in a battle between those who consider it historically-inappropriate to a Civil War battle site, and who particularly object to its presence at a spot of particular importance in the battle, and those who consider the building historically important in itself.

The on-line version of the Times article does not include any of the photos and illustrations that accompanied the print version. The Neutra firm, still run by Richard Neutra's son Dion, maintains a site covering many of the firm's past and present projects. It includes a slideshow of photos of the Cyclorama Center at and around the time of its construction. There you will also find a link to reCyclorama: The Campaign to Save Neutra's Cyclorama, which provides a gallery of both older and current photos and drawings (including a telling shot of the KFC and gas station just across the street from the Center). That site is part of a larger project by Los Angeles-based Christine Madrid French devoted to the Eisenhower administration's Mission 66, intended to modernize the National Park system's facilities in response to the enormous post-war increase in tourism. Fans of mid-century vintage National Park Visitor's Centers will find much of interest.

As you may have guessed, my own inclination would be to leave the Cyclorama Center where it is. Unlike many projects by Major Architects, the Center does not set out to call attention to itself at the expense of its surrounding. When the surrounding trees are in leaf, the building is not easy except on close approach. Even in winter, as when I saw it last year, it is not obtrusive, being well shaped and relatively low-slung on the rise on which it is sited. Its clean lines and use of basic shapes give it a neutrality in the landscape that does not detract, and it does not fall prey to the theme-parky quality of buildings that self-consciously ape an "historical" style, as does the design for the new Center viewable here, at a site devoted to encouraging the clearance of the current Cyclorama/Visitor's Center site in the name of restoring, to the extent possible, the original battle lines, and here, at the site of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, the private co-venturer in the project.

Continue reading "Gettysburg 2: A Battle Over Monuments" »

Vortices, Gherkins and Domes, Oh My

Architecture is the third rail of cultural weblogging. If you don't believe me, please refer to the comment left me by the estimable -- seriously, when is he going to re-activate his own weblog? -- ac douglas below, in response to a post in which I wasn't even talking about architecture, except obliquely.

I generally don't bring up architecture here because I know that I don't know much of anything about it, beyond knowing case by case, not unlike the nameless hero of Green Eggs and Ham, what I Like and what I Do Not Like. In Los Angeles, for instance, I definitely like the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. I definitely do not like (though I admit that I have not yet seen the interior firsthand) our new Cathedral. (Embarrassing confession: while the cathedral was under construction and I was driving past it on a regular basis, it took me months to figure out that its coloring was intentional and permanent and that it was not in fact still encased in plywood.)

I also like much of what I have seen of the newer buildings of London. That seeing has been entirely through photographs, and most of those have been filtered through the camera eye of Brian Micklethwaite. This week, Brian has given us two posts -- one at, the other on his Culture Blog -- about The Vortex, a project proposed by architect Ken Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth, who has just struck out on his own after years of close association with Norman Foster, is responsible for the SwissRe Gherkin -- now there's a building I'd like to see in person -- and the no-longer-wobbly Millenium Footbridge across the Thames.

Click to see it all

Click to see it all

Brian has considerately re-linked one of my favorites of his photos: this one (detail at left) of walkers on the bridge with St. Paul's behind. The arrangement of figures and the tone of the light in that photo always reminds me, in a sudden mental shift from London to Paris, of the splendid rainy street scene by Gustave Caillebotte (detail at right) that is displayed so prominently at the Art Institute of Chicago.

As you can gather, these also are things that I like.