21 April, 2014

The Folly of St. Ann's

Between the walk from my apartment to my workplace lies a piece of architecture in front of an NYU dormitory building that strikes my sense of perspective every time I walk past it. I have taken multiple photographs of this remnant of what was once the 12th Street Baptist Church, the Congregation Emanu-el and for over a century, St. Ann's Church. The section that remains of the original 1847 construction without its 1870 French Gothic sanctuary, is a stark sight in front of the 26-story dorm. 

Apart from the odd vacancy of a cross above the nude steel spire, it is the strangeness that I experience when coming around the side of the folly (the architectural term for a freestanding facade) which sends me into a pensive mood. There is nothing really between the dorms and the Citi bike racks off the sidewalk. 

There is the bracing of brick crossing a few stained glass windows from the '20s, boarded up entryways to the inaccessible tower and the most peculiar thing of all, the backside of the front doors which cannot be approached through the black iron fence of the gateway. Behind me, a building attendant behind an NYU decal on the glass door to the dormitory building known as "Founders Hall."

Two other articles have a more thorough write up than I could produce of the history behind the place of worship that did exist here and the story of its demise at Bedford and Bowery & Daytonian in Manhattan. What I would like to highlight from them both though is an affinity with the underdog (The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, former churchgoers, forlorn art appreciators) and a distaste for the outcome at the hands of the multiple parties involved in St. Ann's fate (New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, NYU, the developer Alan Bell).

Many factors are cited: dwindling outreach and attendance; shifting demographics; debt incurred from multiple parish loans; the tide of progress lapping on the shores of all neighborhoods in Manhattan, especially the Village. Who can say which and in what measure or combination of the above created this particular result, the folly of St. Ann's? It is not so much eerie to me, the observer, or much melancholy or angering. 

My concern I believe is aesthetic, which is also in its own way, moral. My aesthetic experience as I pass this facade every time is as if the sanctuary continued to extend through the dormitory building, all the way back to 11th Street as it once did. This structural impression, the effect of the remnant on the observer creating a disproportionate sense of continuity in regards to the folly, must have escaped the consideration of the developers and their architect that NYU hired entirely - or it wasn't even given a thought, credence or weight.

Both links above include pictures of the church around 1914, when supremely crafted Gothic spire work topped the tower. The cross of symbolic power and its crown of ornament are no longer present. What is present is a memory of something else, of a different school, a religious school. Founders Hall may house current students or future scholars of religious study in an ethnographically or theoretically interested "focus." The place that was St. Ann's provided space for the religious experience to occur for, to, or with a person in the sanctuary. Study became practice, the worship an exercise in scale between immensity and the infinitesimal.

In Catholicism by the taking of communion, the transcendent God becomes accessible through the immanence of the human being. However this is also represented in the architecture of a church itself. The facade and its tower have a verticality that is counterposed by the horizontal stretch of the sanctuary. They meet together (as in the cross) and as this is also true from a point of view of looking down on the floor plan from above, it is just as true from a side view of the chapel. The idea is old: Heaven and earth meet in the house of the Lord. The development and raising up of these structural forms during the medieval period is thoroughly investigated by Otto von Simson in his Bollingen Series book The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, if it is of any interest to the reader.

No Easter confirmations were given after 2003 at St. Ann's Church. The neighborhood is not without its examples from the 19th and 20th centuries when it comes to churches continuing service and even offering organ recitals at midday, such as Grace Church still does only a block away.

The continual recurrence of the experience that the folly of St. Ann's gives me keeps me shooting pictures and contemplating over and again. Sometimes I have to walk/run to work and with my face forward, feet shooting out sidewalk behind them, my attention isn't taken by the folly because I couldn't care less - I'm going to work now, I'll be late, so what? But on the slower walk back home, when these same legs are tired, I cannot help but be a witness to the affront of the folly. Was this really a show of "compromise" in answer to the appeals of the neighborhood? Why leave the vertical without its horizontal, half-disassembling the place's dignity and history?

We see now that purpose is plainly writ in the brick and the steel of any building we encounter. It is a moral and an aesthetic choice - but under the rule of what William Morris called "anarchic plutocracy" the true divinity of the sky is the half-symbol stiffened, straight, lit up and beaming in its sheer and utter verticality. And my God, is it beautiful every time I walk uptown and see the Chrysler Building from afar! Forgoing the Earth for the sky. And so, craning my neck, forgoes I.

09 April, 2014

Nostalgia and Music

A post dedicated to Devin G., who prompted this inquiry into nostalgia & music.


"Nostalgia is immediate, and tends to be localized. As often as not, it is triggered by an experiential short-circuit; our awareness of the present is suddenly interrupted by an image, a feeling, or a sensation from the past. A song on the radio, an old photograph discovered in the pages of a book. The past catches us by surprise and we are filled with longing: for that thing, that person, that place, but more for the selves that we were then."

- Sven Birkerts, from his book The Gutenberg Elegies

In Morrissey's Autobiography, which I have not read and only opened up to a brief paragraph in a bookstore, he describes his experience hearing David Bowie's 1972 song "Starman" from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His description includes a trace of criticism, in that he noticed the chorus ("There's a Starman waiting in the sky...") has a melody that almost exactly duplicates, if not completely lifts, the melody of the opening line to the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for Judy Garland to sing in 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The embedded links are provided to confirm for your own ears what a young Morrissey experienced right away, having in all likelihood acquainted himself with the film over and over again during his childhood in the company of his mother.

There was something that caught my attention about Morrissey's observation. I knew he was right immediately, and I began to think about the phenomenon of that sly chameleon Bowie and his own impact on me as a listener of popular music and after, understandably, about my own young adulthood. I received a double-disc copy of Best of Bowie (US) on my 18th birthday, along with a pink feather boa, paper crown and a plastic scepter filled with glitter suspended, but not obstructed from floating around, in water. It was a fun day of high school and my friends, who were all young women, thought it was a gas to play this image-flipping trick on the birthday boy that they found so nice, so harmless and closer to them than the burgeoning brutishness of the male sex at our campus. 

I was not and am not now an overly effeminate heterosexual or a closeted homosexual. However, I knew while listening to Bowie after school that day in my bright accoutrements that the lines of sexual orientation can be cleverly blurred and in doing so you confuse viewers, inflame curiosity and even beget a little fame from either the love of androgyny or the hate of its vagary. For Bowie, with "Starman" and a number of other hits, sexual preference and outward gender confusion was always codependent upon that strange sensation of remembering who you once were (the older Morrissey in his Autobiography), who that person thought they were then (a young Morrissey watching tele with mum) and who they related that self to (seeing Judy sing in the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz). As the teacher of dance G.I. Gurdjieff taught by his own words and in the records of his pupils, there are many little "i"s in us, but not one whole unity known as "I".

The word nostalgia itself was coined by Johannes Hofer, a medical writer in 1668 looking for a description of a disease, at times deadly, experienced by those displaced or in exile from their homeland. I thank Helmut Illbruck for bringing this interesting origin story of the term to my attention through his book Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Hofer created the neologism from the Greek 'nostos' ("return home") and 'algia' ("pain"). Illbruck notes as well the masterful work of Richard Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in which Burton seems to describe this state or one similar to it as "banishment" and deems it to be an almost adolescent feeling, one that has its root in the unhealthy attachment to a place and the denial that variety in itself has some principle of unity, i.e. the sun shines the same everywhere. However, by the time Hofer published his Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, Burton's book was falling out of print and wouldn't appear again until the 1800s. It would become a notable book once more, for example in the libraries of Walter Pater and the Aesthetic movement. Perhaps Burton's definition of "banishment" as nostalgia describes much about the interior scene of the dandies and decadents of the 19th century's fin de siecle - whose top literary celebrity Oscar Wilde was and is a primary influence upon Morrissey's lyricism and, let us say, his own particular panache

Today, we switch on the radio and find the popular hits fulfilling their function: hitting our ears with catchy but unoriginal phrases, inserted samples with co-opted melodies and our own memory proves not to be a solid vinyl record with an adamantine needle - but a fluid, dentritic and complicit partner of our experience of nostalgia. The aim and development of major advertising for consumable media in the latter half of the 20th century has been directed towards the young. But I hear not 30 years of time between, as with Garland and Bowie, to press "replay" with references and rehashing - now there's only a decade. There is a parallel to Hollywood genre films and the "rebooting" of whole franchises (ex. Spider-Man, Superman, Godzilla, Robocop, etc.) where the target is as always a younger generation, but in this case it's those who might have been playing with the action figures of the earlier ('80s or '90s) franchise attempts, who are now able to get into the new and improved version without parental consent. Nostalgia as a dependable source of suggestive advertising!

I think Birkerts has it right in the quotation I've included above, especially with the phrase "experiential short-circuit." Nostalgia happens in a flash, is an association without formal cause. We experienced something in the past and identified with it. "I" am not a unity, and so the song is heard and my awareness is without, unbound by my current place and time, and lost, homeless to the present...We can imagine a man or woman of the 17th century in a carriage or on foot, leaving behind home, no, a whole world that they won't ever see again, and then years later they meet a person who sings the same bardic tune that their wet nurse sang to them, herself remembering the far away village she would never step foot in again, then the man or woman completely struck with fatigue, longing and the rootless wasting away of their energy. In actuality, it is because there isn't that breastmilk, or that mother, or that feather boa around our necks anymore. We aren't that "i" and we aren't the "i" who writes this article or posts that comment. The real question becomes:


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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening