Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shelf Awareness features NEWS TO ME trailer

Check out Shelf Awareness's book trailer of the day:

Click for more information about News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, by Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel. Our website offers a list of upcoming reading events and an infographic that breaks down the items that appear on the book's cover.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Then and Now: "Old Gray Heads," part two -- Elizabeth Close

"Then and Now" is a series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.


Elizabeth Close and her late husband, Winston Close, were partners in an architectural firm in Minneapolis for many years. Close Associates, as it was called, is still in business, now under the ownership of Gar Hargens.

Elizabeth Close was born Elizabeth Sheu in Vienna in 1912. She grew up in a home filled with culture, where visiting artists were frequent guests. Young Elizabeth became interested in architecture at an early age and attended the Technische Hochschule (Technical High School) where she took a degree in the subject. In 1935 she fled Vienna because of the increasing Nazi influence and came to the United States. She studied at MIT's architecture school, then moved to Minneapolis and joined her new husband in practice.

Charlie Nelson and I chose Elizabeth Close as one of the speakers in the “Old Gray Heads” series because, by the 1980s, she had amassed an impressive array of outstanding buildings in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. She and Winston designed the University of Minnesota's Ferguson Hall (pictured), as well as numerous residences, several of them in the area of Falcon Heights known as University Grove. “The Grove,” as it is familiarly known, is a neighborhood adjacent to the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota in which many faculty and administrators erected houses on property leased from the University on a long-term basis. The Closes themselves built a house there as well.

We held the meeting in the mansion that housed the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota and I remember Elizabeth sitting in a large chair in a comfortable drawing room near a warm fireplace on a cold December evening, holding forth with stories about her life and about architects she had known. Among her memories was of growing up in a house designed by the distinguished Viennese architect, Adolf Loos, and of the cultural richness of her childhood home. Loos’ drawing for the house hung on a wall in her office.

Years later I had the pleasure of helping the Northwest Architectural Archives obtain digital copies of some valuable materials that Elizabeth made available, including a guestbook that held the signatures of the visitors to her parents’ home, including Richard Neutra, the poet Ezra Pound, and the noted author, John Gunther. These digital copies are now part of the collections of the Archives and open to researchers. She also gave me a tour of her home in University Grove.

I shall always cherish my acquaintance with this gracious and talented person who contributed so much to the architecture of our community.


Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the Then and Now series:
-"Old Gray Heads," Part One: Roy Thorshov.
-Fine architecture in Winona, MN.
-Art deco treasures in the Twin Cities.
-The Guthrie Theater(s).
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to sattl014@umn.edu.

Images in this post are from Creative Commons.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"No One Loves a Loser" -- life on the streets in San Francisco.

The following is an excerpt drawn from the new book Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, by Teresa Gowan. Gowan will be giving a talk and signing books tonight at University Press Books in Berkeley, CA, and tomorrow night at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco. Find more event info on our website.


No One Loves a Loser

Willie, a lanky, gravel-voiced white man with a stoop, came from a hard-drinking “hillbilly” family in Stockton. His mother ran off when he was seven, leaving him with his biker brothers, who beat him frequently and taught him to skip school. On New Year’s Eve, 1973, fifteen-year-old Willie witnessed one of his brothers killing a man in a drunken rage, smashing his head with a heavy chain. Overwhelmed by fear and disgust, Willie left home early the next morning and caught the bus to Fresno, the nearest sizeable town. There he slept rough for a few weeks while looking for work. Lying about his age landed him a mediocre job in a rubber goods factory, and he soon found an apartment to share with a couple of other young men. He never went back home.

Willie could move, but he couldn’t change California’s passionate affair with chemically enhanced experience. His early life had left him with a great fear of out-of-control drinking and drugging, but this fear was always tinged with desire and curiosity, for not only the bad times but the good had been charged by drug use. In Fresno, it proved hard to stay away from the constant drinking and drugging of his friends and co-workers. It was the 1970s, the height of American drug consumption, and it seemed like everyone Willie knew was involved with drugs one way or another, using marijuana and Quaaludes to chill, PCP and coke to fly, poppers for sex, and heroin—why with heroin you didn’t even need sex, so they said. Willie tried them all, thinking he would just experiment. Heroin proved too strong for him, holding him in a bitter and sordid embrace that steadily led him to unemployment and petty thievery, and then to jail. When he came out a year later, Willie decided to move to San Francisco, thinking that the variety and opportunities of a big city might help him steer a new course. He worked a few temporary construction jobs, and stayed out of jail for a couple of years, but his hold on himself was fragile, and he failed to land the kind of work that could anchor a new life. He started using heroin again in 1988, and his shoddy collection of part-time jobs was woefully inadequate to feed his habit. Again he turned to stealing, this time motorbikes, which he sold to a fence for between $50 and $200. Within months he was in jail again.

Willie had told me this backstory one day when heavy rain prevented us from recycling. Giving up on making any money that day, we had gone to the St. Francis, a two dollar cinema on Market Street, to see some second-rate action movie. It was warm and dry, and one of the only places in town where you could get away with smoking inside. I remember Willie’s low voice and the glow of his cigarette in the dark, as the gunfire rattled and the explosions roared around us.

I met up with Willie again one year later, a couple of months after he had landed a dishwasher job at a small hotel. His clothes were cleaner and his beard was gone, leaving a handlebar moustache and sideburns that suited his angular face.
“Remind me how it was you got to be homeless in the first place,” I asked him.
Willie leant towards the tape recorder. “I got clean in the county jail in 1991, and I stayed that way for a while. I was dishwasher and short order cook at the Shamrock, on Harrison, I was there seven years.”

“Where were you living?”

“I had a room in the Delta Hotel.”


“Okay it was a dump, but I had one of the best rooms, up on the fifth floor, with a window looking out right over the corner of Sixth and Mission. I had a girl who didn’t do junk, a nice colored girl... She was only 23 when we hooked up, but she really liked me. She was a cocktail waitress in North Beach. … We wanted to see the West, the mountains, Vegas, the desert, you know. The plan was to buy a van, something we could live out of. We had about $600. Then I lost the money and most of my things in the fire in 1997. You heard about that fire?”

“Sure, it was a bad one,” I said. “The place is still empty.”

“The top floors were hit the worst you know. All my shit was destroyed. I had to move into the All-Star, in the Mission. It was all I could find, a stinking little hole with no air, no windows, crackheads roaming the hallways, partying.” Willie paused. “A few weeks later my girl dumped me.”

“Do you think it had anything to do with the fire?”

“It felt like that. You know, no one loves a loser. She was mad with me over losing the cash, said I shoulda put it in the bank. Like I had enough money for a bank account. I was paid in cash, never had that much.”

“You took out your disappointment on each other?”

Willie shrugged. “I guess. I wasn’t great company; I was in a dirty mood. Then she caught me with a rock in my pocket, and that was it. Her parents were dope fiends, and she wasn’t gonna tolerate me using.”

“Were you using a lot of crack?”

“I wouldn’t say a lot. Couple of times a week maybe. I was trying not to, that’s for sure. But I could feel her drifting, flirting with other guys, dressing up more sexy when she was working. And when I talked about getting our shit together again, getting out of town, she wasn’t interested. She would just watch TV when I was trying to talk to her. It made me feel like shit. I mean, this was the best thing I ever had, and I knew it was over. ... And I was worried about my job. Some developer was trying to buy out the boss so he could tear down half the block for some of those new condos. The boss was giving us a good line but we all knew he was going to take the money. It was obvious, the way he started spending more on his car, his clothes. He was just waiting on a better price.

“I needed something to look forward to. I was getting so angry, bitter angry, I thought I might hurt somebody. I wasn’t going to go near heroin, I knew better than that. But I thought, well cocaine, that’s not my drug of choice, I can take it and leave it. I had done it before a few times, before I got with Theresa. And there was this guy at work; we would go up on the roof some times after work. I tried to keep it to a couple of rocks. I knew it was foolish, but I couldn’t do any better. I didn’t have the strength in me. It was a bad time.

“After the bar closed, I went on GA, started looking for another gig. But GA barely covered my rent. I had to get some money for my daily expenses. So I started panhandling on Market Street, by one of the entrances to Montgomery BART Station. I didn’t know what else to do. My idea was to panhandle in the morning then go out looking for work. I wasn’t looking for a hustle. I’m too old for that. I just figured panhandling was the most honest way, you know, I need money, I ask people to spare a few pennies.”

“Had you ever done it before?” I broke in.

“Panhandling? No. And it wasn’t easy. ... You get to hate the people marching past.”

Willie cleared his throat and glanced up at me, a strained look in his eyes. “I was having dreams of being invisible, really invisible, like I couldn’t see my hand. One dream I had, I was standing on a big staircase somewhere, and all these people, this whole line of people I used to know. They came down the stairs past me, and not one of them said a word. They didn’t even seem to see me.

“And then I had to get up and try to find work. Except I had to go back to the hotel and change my clothes to look for work. It all took time, and I was so down, it was hard to come into a joint and ask for work. And they didn’t seem like the right kinds of joints for me.” Willie hesitated, struggling for the right words. “You know how the city, it’s become so yuppie. Like I’m too old, not educated enough. ... Seems like it’s not good enough to be just a regular guy... in the end I gave up on looking for work, and I was just sitting out all day panhandling.”

“Did you ask people for money?” I asked. “Or just fly a sign?”

“At first I had me a sign, and I would just sit and read a book, but you don’t get much if you don’t ask. Then I used to give people this intense look, just say ‘Please, anything helps.’ I figured people should like that, showing you’re not fussy, you’ll take the pennies. ... The thing is, after a while, you hate them, you hate everyone, and they feel it, they know.”

“So how did you come to recycling?”

Willie was silent for a moment, casting his mind back. “See, I was watching Julius every day come past me with this big load. We would say hi. He lived on Sixth Street at one time you know. I realized that he was having a better time than me, it was that simple. He seemed okay, less depressed than I was for sure. Then it took a while for me to get used to the idea of pushing a shopping cart. Seemed to be like saying, ‘Look at me, look at this poor homeless motherfucker.’ And I wasn’t even homeless. I still had my room, just. ... But what’s worse than sitting on Market Street begging? So I asked him could I go out with him, figure out if I could make it work for me.”

“Did you like it?”

“It was okay, but the money was bad, worse than panhandling. I couldn’t see it, working all day and it’s hard manual labor, pushing that bone-shaking cart. You know you should be getting 12, 15 bucks an hour and you’re getting maybe one or two bucks an hour if you’re really going at it. It wasn’t till I lost my room that I went back to it. The thing is, it’s real different when you’re homeless. For a start, you’ve got nowhere to go so you don’t care if you’re working a lot of hours.”

“The more the better?” I asked hesitantly.

“Yeah, just about.” Willie turned to grin at me. “And it took me a while to realize that. I’m in this mentality of 'I’m not gonna work for nothing.' But with recycling, you’re not working for someone else; you’re working for yourself, so you don’t have to feel like someone’s getting rich off you. There’s no boss. No one’s making you do it. OK the money’s not going to do much for you but it’s something, and it gives you something to do that’s not just sitting around. I got stronger than I had been for maybe 10 years, pushing that cart, slinging those bags of bottles. It kinda hurt my shoulder, but otherwise it was real good for me physically. I started cutting down on cigarettes, because I needed my lungs for my work, and I wanted to save.”

“Did you manage to?”

“Not much. But the recycling did get me off the streets. I really think it did. See I met this buddy of mine back from my Fresno days, and I arranged to stay with him and his girlfriend and put something towards the rent. So I was recycling and every day I’d give them 10 bucks. My mentality was so much better, I would go look for work in the mornings, then do a big load of recycling in the afternoon. And it paid off, at least for now. I moved with Wayne and Sherry, we got a place in East Oakland now, got my own room. Things are coming together again, I hope.” Willie resolutely tapped the oak bar with his open hand.

“Couldn’t you have stayed with them anyway, if you weren’t recycling?”

“I dunno. No, I don’t think so. They could see I was doing something for myself, like I wasn’t going to be just hanging around with a long face, getting wasted. You know, I had this routine for myself, work times, work gear, it was like I was working.”
“You just weren’t making much money.”

“Yeah. But money’s not everything you know.”


This vignette appears in Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, by Teresa Gowan.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Then and Now: "The Old Gray Heads," part one -- Roy Thorshov

"Then and Now" is a series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.


Some fifteen years ago or more, the late Charlie Nelson, architectural historian at the Minnesota Historical Society, started a short-lived series of programs for the local chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians called “The Old Gray Heads.” He and I conferred on the scope and details of the series, and it was well received by the membership of the local SAH chapter.

Each year at the December meeting, one of the older architects in the Twin Cities was invited to speak about his or her career, works, and architects of their day. Unfortunately, the series ran out of steam after five years or so. Out of all architects who had been invited, I am going to write about two: Roy Thorshov and Elizabeth Close (who will be featured in Part Two).

Roy was a heavy-set, jowly, good-natured soul who had started practicing in the early 1920s with Long & Thorshov (whose work includes the now-former Dayton's dept. store in downtown Minneapolis) – the “Thorshov” in this case being his father, Olaf, a native of Norway who had migrated to the U.S. around 1901. Olaf died in 1928 and Roy succeeded as the “Thorshov” partner. By the time I knew Roy in 1977, he was semi-retired with a hefty body of work behind him (including work at the Hennepin County Courthouse and at St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis) and was well respected in the community of architects, both within Minnesota and nationally. He had been a long-time member of the Sons of Norway and his firm designed their building on West Lake Street (pictured) in the 1970s.

The name of the firm changed in the early 1940s, becoming Thorshov & Cerny after Robert Cerny joined it and a decade and a half after the last Long had passed on. (Thorshov & Cerny's extensive body of work includes St. Olaf's Catholic Church.) It dissolved in 1960 and each partner went into other practices: Roy Thorshov joined Willard Thorsen, and Robert Cerny started his own firm, Cerny & Associates. Both occupied offices within a couple blocks of each other in downtown Minneapolis for a number of years: Thorsen & Thorshov was in the Old Republic Title Building at the corner of Fourth Street and Second Avenue South, and Cerny had offices in the Soo Line Building at Marquette Avenue and Fifth Street South.

Roy was one of the initial members of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, formed by an ordinance in 1973. He was still on the HPC when I came on board in 1977. Because of his extensive knowledge of the city’s architectural history, he was a valued member, both of the Commission and of its Catalog Committee. The latter was a three-person group consisting of Roy, Kermit Crouch, and me, most ably assisted by staff members Gail Bronner and Camille Kudzia. Our task was to spend two or three hours once or twice a month driving through city neighborhoods and identifying buildings of all types that seemed to merit, on the basis of their appearance, further research (by the staff) to determine their date of construction, original owner’s name, architect’s name, and other pertinent information. Any structure that met the criteria of stylistic and historical significance could potentially be nominated by the Commission to its list of historic structures and thus be protected from wanton destruction.

During these trips up and down city streets, Roy would regale us with stories about neighborhoods, architects of the past, and even owners whom he may have known as either clients or by reputation. He was especially knowledgeable about Prospect Park in Southeast Minneapolis, where his family had roots and his sister still lived in a house built in the 1880s. He would point out a house and remark, “So-and-so lived there,” and proceed to tell a story about the person or the house or both and chuckle over its humorous aspects. Needless to say, these were gloriously fun-packed days, filled with first-hand history from a man who “had been there and done that.”

When it came his turn to speak at the “Old Gray Heads” program, we held the meeting in the City Hall. Roy spoke all too briefly about his career – being a very modest man by nature – but he treated everyone to a ride in the very cramped clock tower elevator to the roof of City Hall, where we had a delightful view of downtown. Of course, Roy pointed out the sights and commented on buildings that had once stood there. It was a lesson in living history, and I shall never forget it.

Sadly, Roy has been gone for nearly twenty years and took with him a wealth of information about the architectural history and heritage of Minneapolis. I feel immensely pleased and honored to have known him as one of the “Old Gray Heads.”


Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the Then and Now series:
-Fine architecture in Winona, MN.
-Art deco treasures in the Twin Cities.
-The Guthrie Theater(s).
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to sattl014@umn.edu.

Images in this post are from Creative Commons.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

MPR's Peter Smith on high-school football: "We stunk and we knew it."

Brett Favre is here and Minnesota is rejoicing—and perhaps remembering how Al Franken totally called this last week.

We've got football on the brain (and not to mention cautious hopes at a Super Bowl championship). In honor of the season, we are happy to share an essay by Peter Smith, who remembers with "fondness" his days of high-school football. Smith is a weekly contributor to MPR's Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer and author of the forthcoming essay anthology A Porch Sofa Almanac.


For a while there—most of freshman, and all of sophomore, junior and senior years—my high school football team was mired in a losing streak. Once a year, we might tie someone. Or even eek out a win. The sad truth was that, for a variety of reasons, we just weren’t very good, and from the start of practice in late August to the day we turned in our equipment in early November, the deepest bruises and contusions were the ones inflicted on our hearts and souls. We stunk and we knew it.

Other teams greeted the new season with fresh hope and surging spirits. They jogged out there with enthusiasm that first day of practice, and they launched into their calisthenics thinking this could be the year. Not us. We walked onto the field ruefully, the smokers among us stubbing out their last cigarettes before going into training. We slouched into our drills with a shrugging, “Here goes nothing,” resignation.

Ours was a tradition rich with abject failure and adolescent nihilism. Around our program, the stench of futility was as pungent and pervasive as the smell of the last owner’s sweat inside your just-issued helmet.

I doubt Coach could have spelled nihilism, let alone define it, but he knew it when he saw it, and, year after year, he saw it in us. Undaunted, he coached on, trying to instill character as he installed his offense and defense. More than just building a football program, Coach wanted to build fine young men—upright, resolute, stout-hearted young men. Young men who would preside over the Student Council, give the Valedictorian speech, and win the two hundred and fifty dollar college scholarship from the local American Legion. Handsome, community-minded types—like Frank Gifford, the much-admired New York Giants’ halfback.

Sadly, no. Most of us were more in the mold of the Baltimore Colts’ enigmatic Joe Don Looney. Joe Don had been known to run the wrong way on purpose. He played when he felt like it. He didn’t play when he didn’t. He once told his coach he couldn’t go into a game because his karma wasn’t right. When his playing days were over, Joe Don spent several years tending elephants for a Hindu swami.
All this in that post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era. Bob Dylan had not yet pronounced it, but you could feel it—the times were a-changing.

Coach, a straight-shooting, flattop-sporting character builder, had his hands full. Just fielding a team in time for the regular season was a victory.

The losing began when the season began, and went on and on, week after week. In cities and towns across three counties, we were that one game on everyone’s schedule that the old timers could circle and count as a victory long before the game was played.

Even when things were going good, something would go bad. Someone on our team would “cheap shot” somebody on the other side. First and ten would become first and twenty-five. The thin veneer of success would crack. Failure would reemerge and, with failure, an oddly reassuring sense of normalcy. We were losing again. All was right with the world.

When the chips were down and our backs were against the wall—which was pretty much every week—Coach brought in a nervous little man with a clipboard to deliver an inspirational speech before we took the field. The nervous little man had been student manager on Coach’s college team, and he shared Coach’s belief in God, America, and the character-building power of football.

Week after week, the nervous little man would look to the ceiling. The fluorescent lights would glint off his glasses and he would take a deep breath, fix us with a righteous stare and start his speech on an innocuously low key and obvious point.

Something like, “Well boys, this is it. The Barrington game…”

Referring to his clipboard now and then, he would begin to build steam. He would recall every slight, real or imagined. Every missed call, every Barrington cheap shot and lucky break, and every opportunity to beat Barrington that we’d fumbled away on the one yard line. He would pile bad break on top of unlucky bounce, injury on top of indignity, working himself slowly to a crescendo. He would pace back and forth and chew and jawbone and snarl and seethe and scrap and yap like a Jack Russell terrier on a rag doll, building a righteous, Elmer Gantry-like indignation.

Then, suddenly, clipboard high overhead, he would pause in mid rant, as if struck by some new and incredibly more important thought. The clipboard would come down. So, too, would the tone. Where only fifteen seconds before it had been ringing, now it was confidential. Cajoling.

“I don’t have to tell you this one’s important, boys,” he would wheedle. “This is Barrington, for goodness sake. Bare… Ring… Ton…”

He would begin to build anew—a series of, “I don’t have to tell you’s.”

“I don’t have to tell you how bad Coach wants this win…”

“I don’t have to tell you the whole season is riding on this one…”

When he finished telling us everything he didn’t have to tell us, he turned his attention to the memories we were making for ourselves. These were the best days we would ever know. So let’s go out there and make the kind of memories we could be proud of in the future.

His voice always broke on the word, “proud”. This was our cue to stand and put on our helmets. He would use “proud” three or four more times – “Go out there and make your parents proud. Your school proud. Your town proud.” If the game were big enough, he even would even manage to make himself cry just a little.

And we would huddle up and lean in and give a big, albeit false-hearted cheer. And we would clatter out of the locker room on our high-topped football cleats. Smelling of fresh athletic tape, pine tar and a mentholated substance called “Atomic Balm,” we would push down the hall, out into the brilliant autumn sunlight. We would stride across the parking lot and through the gates and take the football field – our home football field – with a gritty-but-thinly-rooted sense of purpose.

And we would lose. Week after week, we would fail Coach and our parents and our school and our town. We would send the nervous little man back to the well for more tears and more inspiration.

“Well, boys, this is it. The Crystal Lake game…”

“Well, boys, this is it. The Woodstock game…”

“Well, boys, this is it. The Zion game…”

Our record my senior season is etched on my heart. 0-7-1. We battled to an uplifting 0-0 tie at Homecoming—a rainy moral victory that echoes down through the ages.

August again. I long since quit smoking, but part of me longs to light up a Lucky Strike if only to drop it and grind it out under a cleat, slide a stinky old helmet on and walk out onto the practice field once more—to make everyone—Coach, Mom and Pop, the school—the whole town—proud.


Read more essays by Peter Smith in A Porch Sofa Almanac.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aaaaand we're back to the State Canvassing Board.

As Minnesota's State Canvassing Board meets today to certify last week's close-but-not-close-enough-for-a-recount primary election results, one can't help but remember a time in 2008 when all eyes, locally and nationally, were turned to the State Canvassing Board.

The University of Minnesota Press has compiled this infographic timeline that lays out all of the events surrounding the 2008 Coleman–Franken Minnesota Senate recount—the largest, longest, and most expensive election recount in American history. The Minnesota recount lasted about 35 weeks; the 2000 Bush–Gore Presidential recount, by comparison, lasted 36 days.

For more information, check out This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount by Jay Weiner, forthcoming this fall.

You can download a larger, PDF version of the timeline by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The ethics of earth art — different approaches to understanding ourselves in relation to the planet.

Today's Q&A feature is with Amanda Boetzkes, assistant professor of art and design at the University of Alberta and author of the soon-forthcoming The Ethics of Earth Art.


Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photograph JEK 2005 ©. Art © Estate of Robert Smithson/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo from CreativeCommons.org.

Q: You write in your book's introduction: "Contemporary art counters two deeply flawed but nevertheless pervasive stances toward the earth" — the instrumental view that seeks to master the planet and the romantic view that seeks a "state of unencumbered continuity with nature." Does your book find a middle ground?

The arguments I put forward in The Ethics of Earth Art implicitly critique two ways of understanding ourselves (humans) in relation to the planet. On the one hand, there is the more dangerous of the two, in which humans presume dominion over the earth by harvesting natural resources for profit. This means that not only is the planet conceived entirely as a means to the human end of producing a reserve of energy that can be exchanged for money, but also that there is an infinite demand for those resources which inevitably leads to the exploitation and destruction of highly complex ecosystems. The global economy is entirely dependent on colonizing the earth in this way, without regard for the health and diversity of other forms of life. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of how the drive to instrumentalize the planet can easily lead to catastrophic negligence.

This predicament is perhaps no surprise, but the danger I see is that the instrumental model is also accompanied by a counter-discourse that attempts to criticize it, but in fact does little to dismantle it. This counter-discourse is, at its core, a fiction that humans can return to a natural state of being. I call it a romantic view because it is characterized by a profound, even quasi-erotic, desire to be reunited with “nature.” According to the logic of this discourse, nature is untouched, a Garden of Eden that existed before a mythological time before modernity, before science, before technology, before money. To return to nature would be to recover an essential human condition. But no such essential condition exists, and often the division between what is natural and what is not only serves the purposes of a corporate ideology.

I cannot say that I take a middle road between the two positions, because I see them both as fundamentally misguided. In my book, I try to posit a somewhat different approach. While perhaps our anthropocentricism is inevitable, it is not impossible to recognize our limitations. One’s experience of the planet is bound to a frame of reference that is particular to our species: our history, knowledge, and bodily experience. Yet, there was life on earth long before humans and there will be long after we have died out. It always outstrips what we purport to know about it or experience of it. To me this is a sublime realization. I argue that earth art gives rise to this humble position in the face of the earth’s excessiveness. A stance of ontological humility is the beginning of ethics. From this perspective, a position of transcendental mastery is impossible and the notion of “the natural,” entirely untenable.

Q: Some suggest that Robert Smithson was the first earth artist; others disagree. Where do you stand?

Earth art is far too diverse to be attributed to any one artist. I am also wary of patrilineal histories that posit a single male artist as the creator of a movement or style. There were many artists who were roughly contemporaneous with Smithson who were engaging in similar forms of experimentation, and there were many others who had quite different approaches to making art but who were nevertheless important in defining the arena of earth art in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Performance artists like Ana Mendieta, Dennis Oppenheim, and Joseph Beuys, systems-based artists like Hans Haacke and the Harrisons, environmental artists like Betty Beaumont, and postminimalist sculptors like Richard Serra, all made significant contributions to exploring the aesthetic and ethical territory of earth art.

I do address some of Smithson’s work, which is undoubtedly very rich. However, my goal is not so much to present him as an originator of the massive earthworks sculptures he is often associated with. Rather, it is to analyze how he used a variety of media, such as film, mirrors, installation and photography, to alternately deprive the viewer of an object of representation and then saturate the senses with elemental phenomena such as blinding sunlight or lapping water. In this way, I suggest, Smithson exposed and challenged the limits of the perceptual field.

Q: What specific differences do you spot between earthworks of the ‘60s and those that are more modern?

The standard history would describe a shift from “land art” to “eco-art.” Often it is understood that most earth art of the ‘60s and early ‘70s consisted of monumental sculptures that were deliberately inaccessible and did not have any particularly “environmentalist” content, while the following decades saw the rise of smaller scale interventions that reveal the ecological subtleties of a landscape or public space, and are more invested in environmental restoration and activism. To me, this story is not historically accurate and is perhaps too simplistic in its characterization of the ethical investments of the artworks.

Certainly, it is true that ecological imperatives have become a more familiar discursive field from which to interpret more recent artworks. But there are two main points I wanted to make in writing this history of earth art: the first is that the earlier generation of earth artists were not just sculptors, they were multi-media artists who were interrogating the aesthetic experience of the world and attempting to create alternate modes of perception. The aesthetic dimensions of the artworks had ethical implications. Equally, subsequent generations of earth art have not simply been concerned with restoration, but consistently explore how aesthetics are inextricable from ecological investments. So in answer to a question about historical differences, I am actually suggesting that there are continuities between the generations of artists that are sometimes overlooked.

Q: Does feminism fit into your book's argument?

There is a branch of feminist theory that strongly inflects my arguments about the ethical dimensions of earth art. The book is strongly engaged with the way that ethics is defined in the phenomenological tradition, not only by philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger, but more importantly by feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler who have developed some of the most sophisticated understandings of ethics. Irigaray is particularly attentive to the way that ontological recession, the precondition for an ethical acknowledgment of “the other,” is associated with an abundance of sensation. Irigaray’s elaboration of the ethical encounter as an aesthetic experience allowed me to consider how ecological imperatives might be redefined through the vehicle of earth art.


Learn more about Amanda Boetzkes' The Ethics of Earth Art, which will be available this month from University of Minnesota Press.

Works by Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim, among others, are currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Between Here and There exhibit. The exhibit ends in February 2011.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Then and Now: Winona, Minnesota. (Highly recommended as a destination for an end-of-summer road trip.)

"Then and Now" is a monthlong series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.


Winona County Courthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Without question: Winona, that beautiful little city on the Mississippi flood plain in the southeastern part of the state, holds some of the finest architecture in all of Minnesota. Between the early 1870s and the first decade of the twentieth century there was a virtual explosion of extraordinary buildings going up in the city. Concentrated within its confines are several unique and elegant churches, two spectacular banks (one of which was nearly lost in the early 1970s), a magnificent court house (which also came perilously close to demolition in the same era), and several residences of notable style and grace.

The ecclesiastical contributions range from the large and impressive St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church (1894-5), with its tall, graceful drum and dome, to the much smaller but equally impressive St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, erected two decades earlier of locally quarried stone. Each was designed by resident Winona architects Charles Maybury and Ananias Langdon, respectively. In between are such gems as First Congregational Church (1880-82), designed in the Romanesque Revival style by William Willcox of Chicago (later St. Paul), and First Baptist Church (1888-93), in the same genre, by the brothers George and A.S. Bullard of Springfield, Illinois.

There are also two banks of special note, built at roughly the same time: The Merchants National Bank, a product of the genius of William Purcell and George Elmslie of Minneapolis (1912-13), and the Winona Savings Bank (which also housed the Winona National Bank) designed by George Maher of Chicago and erected in 1914-15. Both are exquisite creations. The Merchants National Bank embodies all the theory and practice of the Prairie School style, which owed its genesis to Louis H. Sullivan and his most famous pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright. This brilliant gem of a building was almost lost in the early 1970s, before the bank's president was persuaded, by an avalanche of letters and phone calls of protest from alarmed and angry citizens far and wide, to change his mind and undertake a restoration. His name was Gordon Espy and when I talked to him at the grand opening of the restored structure in 1972, he was still grumbling at the expense incurred and wondered if it was all worth it. Rest easy, Mr. Espy, I told him; you can be assured it is.

The Winona Savings Bank/Winona National Bank is equally as magnificent, but in a different way. It is solidly constructed of marble and limestone instead of brick, as was employed at the Merchants National Bank, giving it a heavier quality. Its design incorporates Prairie School elements, especially in the treatment of the fenestration and characteristic opulent stained glass, with the result bearing a strange resemblance that some think hearken back to Egyptian antecedents. For this reason the building has mistakenly been called Egyptian Revival, but it is not. The architect, George Maher (who also was responsible for the masterful J.R. Watkins office building in 1911), simply sought to create an edifice in which the “plan and general design follow no precedent either in this country or abroad and are therefore original and American in spirit ... The architecture was to express the idea of service and of beauty ... [and] the exterior design directly reflects the general aspect of the interior plan; that is to say, the interior purpose of the edifice is clearly portrayed on the facades."

The Winona County Court House (pictured at top) is an exemplary exponent of Midwestern Richardsonian Romanesque. Its architect was hometown boy Charles Maybury. The court house was erected in 1888 and came close to being razed during a period of enthusiastic, if misguided, attempts to spruce up the downtown area. Fortunately, again, citizen activism blocked the effort and the building still stands.

Finally, the city seems to have more than its share of impressive residences, several of which are among the finest examples of Italianate architecture in the state: The Huff house (1857), the Sinclair residence (1870s) and the Keyes house are perhaps the best. The Schmitz house (1890) epitomizes the disfunctionality of the Queen Ann style, and the Gallagher residence (1913) by Purcell and Elmslie is among their best Prairie School houses.

Unfortunately, as is also the case with many American towns and cities, much noteworthy architecture in Winona has fallen victim to accidental loss, but far more has gone to landfills through insensitivity and failure to recognize the contribution that older buildings make to everyday sociological currents. Yet, the city still has much to offer and should be on everyone’s list of obligatory exploration.


Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the Then and Now series:
-Art deco treasures in the Twin Cities.
-The Guthrie Theater(s).
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to sattl014@umn.edu.

Images in this post are from Creative Commons.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Great crowd at Rod Carew book signing

Here are some photos we've received from the very busy book signing with hall-of-famer Rod Carew at a southern California Costco last Saturday. We're told that people started lining up a whopping 2 hours before the advertised time to see Mr. Carew.

Carew was signing copies of the new edition of his memoir Carew, which features a foreword by former Twins great Torii Hunter and a new afterword by Rod Carew.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Submersion Doesn't Come Easily: How the musical score in "Inception" is a lesson in collective dreaming. (As well as an ode to Hitchcock's "Vertigo.")

Today's post is by Amy Herzog, associate professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. She is author of Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film.


In a sequence from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010), we are introduced to the mechanics of shared dreaming alongside the young architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as she is being recruited by master dream manipulator, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). While sitting at an outdoor Paris café, Dom reveals to Ariadne that they are in fact communing in a dream space of her own subconscious design. As the realization washes over Ariadne, the surrounding streets begin to tremble and fracture. Building facades burst like concrete and glass puffs of popcorn. The earth heaves with a low-end groan, and the air fills with the detritus of what had moments ago been the weighty objects of urban life: produce crates, cobblestones, shards of furniture.

Ariadne later ventures into the Paris of her mind as the score swells to buoy the movements on screen. She is able to bend and metamorphose the streets in ways that defy waking-life physics, creating new planes of movement and new spatiotemporal rules. She tells Dom that she is surprised to learn about the rich multisensory nature of this domain; she had imagined dreams would be dominated by the visual, but this world is in fact dictated by “feeling.”

Inception has generated a flurry of debates among critics, fans, and bloggers, such that a substantial portion of reviews consist of metacommentaries on these feuds, and on the role of film criticism in general. A particular lightning rod has been the score, composed by Hans Zimmer, which has been described as everything from “masterful” to “trombone-heavy music … which pounds us into near-deafness, if not quite submission.”

Regardless of one’s position on the critical value of the film, it is difficult to deny the centrality of music to Inception’s aesthetic and thematic project. The soundscape at large is bombastic, washing over the action in a densely layered soup of real and synthetic elements. On the level of narrative, the characters make poignant use of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” as a cue throughout the film. Piaf’s song serves as a sonic guidepost to carry the dream-infiltrating team through the subterranean layers of consciousness into which they have submerged. Though the visuals of the film are indeed intensely rendered, the overall spectacle is a true audiovisual fusion. Much like a dreamer’s reverie, our affective responses to this mix supersede logic or reason.

Which is not to say affect is the only level on which Inception resonates. While critics have tended to pit intellect versus emotion in the film (reading it as either a compelling drama about lost love or an intricate and meaningless logical exercise), I would argue that the film circles ambiguously around these poles. Critics on both sides, I suspect, are responding to the film’s refusal to satisfyingly root itself either in a plausible emotional drama or within in a philosophical construct that holds water once the rush of sounds and images has faded away. Yet this refusal may be the film’s most interesting move, one that seems linked to its larger commentary on the machinations of cinema as an art form.

Cinema, like the dream, toes a self-conscious line between reality and fantasy, narrative structure and spectacle, reason and feeling. Inception invites this comparison between film and dream most pleasurably in a rush of cinematic allusions. These nods are at times direct visual references, such as Ellen Page’s styling in one dream world as a mirror image of Kim Novak’s Madeleine from Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) (with every detail rendered, from the twist in her hair to the folds of the scarf beneath her fitted gray wool suit). At other times, the connections may be more oblique, but there are clear resonances with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), and The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999) — be they visual echoes, or hauntingly similar spaces or tones.

Yet the tie to Vertigo strikes me as the most revealing. In both films we follow our protagonist/investigator down a rabbit hole in which reality is revealed to be anything but transparent. We, alongside our on-screen avatar, are seduced by an image of love that unravels into pure fabrication. But the emotional impact of that memory is not diminished by this revelation; rather, it is the pillars of the “real” world that begin to crumble and quake. The ground shifts, and we are left in a maddening and extremely disconcerting realm between knowledge and feeling.

The question of music remains key here. Vertigo, too, is driven by a score that refuses to play a subservient role to the image. Neither Bernard Hermann’s score for Vertigo nor Zimmer’s for Inception, for me, tip into the realm of the “musical moment”—those instances where song wells up to dictate the rhythm and flow of images, no longer moored to narrative reality. The music in both Vertigo and Inception never assumes complete, embodied control in this sense, but seems to provide simultaneous commentary on both emotional and symbolic registers. The themes circle round in cascading circles of notes or in overlapping waves of orchestration. We are lured in, but are left, in the end, purposefully adrift rather than immersed.

Multilayered allusions are further entrenched within Inception’s soundtrack. Zimmer, in fact, constructed his score on a heavily manipulated fragment from “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Extracting an isolated beat from the song, Zimmer’s team enhanced it with “isolated brass stabs,” and built the rhythms of the score around “subdivisions and multiplications of the tempo of the Edith Piaf track” (Hans Zimmer, quoted in Dave Itzkoff, “A Film’s Mysteries Include a Tease to Édith Piaf,” New York Times, 1 August 2010). Without prior knowledge of this borrowing, the connection between song and score, for most listeners, would not be fully apparent. Given the particularly forward nature of Zimmer’s composition, however, the resonance lodges (or is pushed) into our subconscious. It is a carefully orchestrated technical feat, but one that builds on the very real, lingering power Piaf’s song retains (both within and beyond the narrative world of the film).

For all the discussion of Inception, technologically, as the ultimate immersive experience, I find it interesting that Nolan’s script and visualization and Zimmer’s score seem adept at refusing us the satisfaction of full and easy submersion. While I would stop short of making comparisons between Nolan and filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Kubrick, Inception appears to make explicit reference to films like Vertigo and 2001 that make brilliant use of spectacle laden labyrinths to reveal a destabilizing image of our lived reality. As in those earlier films, we are constantly slipping in and out of self-conscious awareness in Inception, tipping between the layers of dreams the onscreen architects weave, and momentary realizations of our own status as movie viewers. The numerous intertextual references, the relentless push of the score, and the familiarity of the rich ensemble cast in Inception guarantee a degree of self-consciousness. I’d see this less as a shortcoming than as a deeply engaging exploration of the pleasures and pitfalls of collective dreaming.


Amy Herzog can be reached at amy.herzog@qc.cuny.edu.

Learn more about her book, Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film.

Photos used in this post can be found at The Movie Mash and Screen Crave.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Then and Now: Art deco treasures in the Twin Cities

"Then and Now" is a monthlong series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.


The Twin Cities are a rich lode of art deco architecture, compared with other American cities of equal size. Despite having many art deco structures disappear in decades past, a number of examples (including some very good ones) still remain scattered about, mostly in downtown areas.

Art deco began as a post-World War I rejuvenation of art nouveau. This was expressed in the exuberant and highly exaggerated vegetable and animal forms that became — and still are — popular in architectural ornament, pottery, jewelry, and stained glass in Europe around 1900. Art nouveau was rooted in the Vienna Secessionist and similar movements of the late 1890s. The movement lasted under a decade before being absorbed into other art and architectural expressions. In the U.S., one of these was the Prairie School, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Henri Sullivan, and their followers, including William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie in the Twin Cities.

The Prairie School, or “progressive” architecture (a term preferred by its adherents), faded in the late 1910s and was replaced by an olio of styles that, by and large, harkened back to previous centuries. Art deco emerged in a show held in Paris in 1925, “art decoratif,” which featured forms that seemed to be minimally simplified modifications of those of art nouveau. But art deco in the U.S. quickly evolved into forms that were sleek and smooth and shiny, as architects created “streamlined” shapes incorporating sweeping curves to evoke the new age’s love of speed and that utilized new kinds of building materials, such as pressed nickel-based “monel metal,” plastic, and glass block.

Early on, the Twin Cities saw the construction of several outstanding examples of art deco and streamline moderne, into which the former morphed late in the 1930s. The area was fortunate in having a handful of architects who quickly adopted the style: Harry Firminger, Holabird & Root, Liebenberg and Kaplan, Myrtus Wright, and Werner Wittkamp. These men brought art deco to Minneapolis and St. Paul around 1930, and fortunately, a number of their works are extant today.

The best examples are:

The St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Court House (1932; pictured above), designed by Holabird & Root of Chicago with Ellerbe & Company of St. Paul. Its cool, glossy lobby features the statue God of Peace (at left), carved in onyx by Carl Milles in 1936.
The Dain Tower (also known as the Rand Tower) in Minneapolis (1929-30), by Holabird & Root. Its lobby is on a much smaller scale than the St. Paul City Hall, but is a masterpiece of quiet dignity and sleekness in marble, frosted glass, and monel metal. The sculpture Wings, by Oskar Hansen, stands in the lobby.
The bar at the Commodore Hotel, St. Paul (1930). It's no stretch of the imagination to picture Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald hanging out there in its heyday. The compact but comfortable bar was designed in glass and mirrors by Werner Wittkamp, a former Hollywood set designer who drifted into architecture.
The Hollywood, Varsity, Uptown, and Grandview theaters (1933-39), the former three of which were designed by Jack Liebenberg, a master at art deco and streamline moderne eye candy, to lift people dragged down by the cares of the Depression into the escapist world of the movies for a couple hours. The Grandview (1933, 1937), in St. Paul, was created by an unknown named Myrtus Wright. Both of the existing art deco theaters in the city, the other being the Highland, were designed by Wright.
The Forum Cafeteria (1930), by George Franklin who worked for the headquarters of the Forum Cafeteria chain out of Kansas City, assisted by local architects Magney and Tusler. Its interior is a masterpiece of black glass, mirrors, and some monel metal light fixtures which, despite being dismantled and reinstalled in City Center, is basically intact.

To walk into any of these marvelous spaces is to go back to a time that appreciated quiet exuberance and escape from the cares and worries of the everyday. To enter them is to enjoy them.


Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the series:
-The Guthrie Theater(s).
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to sattl014@umn.edu.

Images in this post are from Creative Commons.