The House by the Railroad (1925)

House by the Railroad (1925) - Edward Hopper

I’ve always found this painting by Edward Hopper strange and disturbing. The house seems not so much built, as extruding itself from the landscape, extending bizarre architectural pseudopods. It has a plastic life of its own.

Not surprisingly, it was the inspiration for the house in Psycho, where creepy Norman Bates took such good care of his dear old mum. The question is what came first – the film or the painting? For me it was probably the film, colouring my impression of the painting, but what if you saw the painting first or perhaps never saw the film? You might see it differently. Here’s the Psycho house.

Psycho House

I think Hopper’s house is more disturbing. It has a greater sense of verticality, and those misshapen, oversized dormer windows and red chimneys push it right over the edge into overbearing and threatening. He’s imbued it with a sense of haunting loneliness, as he does to the figures in his paintings. What the film achieved by subject, lighting, music, and camera angles, Hopper achieves with paint.

But I would like to read an impression of the house from before the film.

Thinking outside the box: Phonehenge West

There’s very little individuality left, and there’s not a lot of space for people who are different, no matter what the different feature is.

Kim Fahey has been building an extension to his house, on a 1.7 acre property in the Mojave Desert, for the last 30 years. He was placed on “five years’ probation on Friday and ordered to serve 63 days community service, five of them at the county morgue,” according to this article in the Seattle PI. The reason for the bizarre punishment (a morgue?) is Fahey’s refusal to stop building the house of his dreams, which violates Los Angeles County construction codes. Here’s the central portion of the sprawling 13 structure compound in summer and winter.

LA County have since torn it all down in a callous display of petty, vindictive, bureaucratic vandalism. Phonehenge West, so named because of Fahey’s previous occupation as a phone company technician, was a masterpiece of folk art as well as a unique family home. It was built almost entirely of scrap materials, including a lot of really sturdy telegraph poles, and even old movie sets. He had a lot of support from his neighbours and a group called Save Phonehenge West, whose website has pictures of Fahey, his family, and some of the other structures.

To no avail. I think this is another lost battle in the war to save individuality and creativity from the numbing grip of corporate conformism. It’s all the more distressing because we have traditionally expected better from a country where rugged individualism was once seen as a defining virtue. There are similarities with the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, where the county was determined to destroy the work of another iconoclast, Simon Rodia. In that case, cranes were unable to shift the structure, and it survives today.

Which begs the question – perhaps LA County was right in Fahey’s case, since they were able to tear it down? Was it dangerous as a residence? The attempt cost $83,488 so that suggests something fairly robust. A scientific test might have found it met or exceeded the construction code requirements. I don’t doubt that Fahey is a stubborn man who refused to endear himself to officialdom, and that might have been part of the problem. But it shouldn’t be – they should have dealt fairly with him (i.e. tested the structures properly) regardless of his attitude.

Here’s a photogallery from the LA Times, and a documentary about Phonehenge West and Kim Fahey.

It’s heartbreaking to think that glorious building was torn down, while we’re forced to live in little boxes. Or even become boxes ourselves, hence the cliche – “Think outside the box.” Not to be taken seriously, of course – governments find that sort of thing troubling.

A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.

Chelsea Hotel

I recently watched an Arena documentary from 1981, about the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City.  You know you’re in for something unusual, when it starts with a singing tour guide shepherding his group into the lobby to visit the Chelsea’s equally famous manager, Stanley Bard, before processing through its innards and discovering some of the eccentrically creative tenants.  Much as Mussorgsky configured Pictures at an Exhibition around his own perambulations through an art gallery.  Or possibly The Shining, to which the documentary refers by having a kid riding a tricycle down endless corridors.  A glorious building from a time when hotels and apartment houses had proper architectural oomph.  This video gives an idea of what it’s like inside.

The Chelsea was famous for welcoming innovative artists, writers, and musicians, regardless of whether they could afford to pay at that point in their careers.  An astounding number of creative artists found a home from home there.  It’s a Who’s Who of the arts, everyone from Mark Twain to Madonna, including Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.  Cohen wrote Chelsea Hotel 2 about Janis Joplin.  Stanley Bard, part-owner and manager, collected talented people.

Needless to say, this kind of Bohemian approach to the hotel business had its critics, and Bard was ousted as manager in 2007.  Joseph Chetrit, a real estate developer, bought the Chelsea in 2011.  In August, he closed its doors to new guests, although there are still long-term residents.  Definitely the end of an era – bankers hold the whip hand now.  Here are Bard’s thoughts on his last day at work in 2007, and a year later.  I predict high-end condominiums, once Chitrit has squeezed out the residents.

In celebration of this bright, sad, beautiful soap bubble of creativity, here’s the first part of the Arena programme.  For the other parts, see 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Kelburn Castle Graffiti Project

I am indebted to the Daily Mail for this blog post.  Bugger.  Never thought I’d write that sentence.  The fact remains that I’d probably never have heard of this project if the Daily Mail hadn’t chosen to vent their spleen on Patrick Boyle, Earl of Glasgow, who decided to give a team of Brazilian graffiti artists, Os Gemeos, free rein on the oldest part of Kelburn Castle.  That was in 2007.  Here’s what the BBC News has to say, for a less sensational and prejudiced approach.

There was an agreed 3 year lifespan for the graffiti, pending replacement of the concrete facing on which it was painted, but Lord Glasgow has now petitioned Historic Scotland to keep the graffiti.  They have a say in its fate, because Kelburn Castle is a Grade A Listed Building.

I’ve no doubt that a big part of the reason for wanting to keep the graffiti is financial – it brings in visitors.  Beyond that, it’s a brilliant piece of public art and should be preserved.  I’d love to go and see it.  How it can be preserved is another matter.  There’s a structural need to replace the concrete facing, in order to avoid further damage to the 13th century masonry.  All art – all life – is temporary, and that’s what makes it so precious.

Even so, I want this mural to stick around for as long as possible.  It shows the innovative spirit of Scotland that drew me to this place.  We’re not a theme park with kilts, whisky, haggis, shortbread, and bagpipes, however well that might sell to the tourists.  There’s also the deep-fried Mars bar.

This time lapse video shows the work under construction, from start to finish.