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One summer, a little over twenty years ago, I took to wandering the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria late in the evenings, with a medium-format camera and a light-meter slung over one shoulder and a heavy tripod balanced on the other. At the time, I was entranced by the interplay between strong artificial streetlight and the textures of well-worn building facades and the way it registered on high-contrast black/white film pushed a stop or two beyond its rated sensitivity.

Among my favorite subjects, then as in recent years: balconies.  As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, Sofia was and still is a city of balconies: wrought iron, wooden, concrete, and plaster.  Two decades ago, however, just as today, most of Sofia’s balconies appeared empty, even on springtime and summer evenings.  Life had turned inward, so it seemed, and had yet to reemerge.  The social function of balconies as an interstice between the private and  public realms had ceased, with nobody observing public life from balconies nor conducting  their private lives in view of  neighbors or passersby.  Instead, a sharp, albeit invisible, dichotomy arose between public and private and indoors and out.

The source of this dichotomy is by no means a mystery. Factors include a rise of urban anomie in general, a search for privacy and an over-reaction against the pressures and intrusions of the public realm during the communist period, and the absence of social cohesion and trust in the time since.  The replacement of physical interaction and neighborhood connections by internet-based social networks also plays a part, as does the out-dated confusion of gated isolation with status.  For an in-depth examination, both of the history of Sofia and matters of public vs. private space in general, I recommend urbanist Sonia Hirt’s excellent book, Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City, which I have been savoring chapter-by-chapter over the past year.

Two views from a balcony on a cul-de-sac street in the Tepebaşı quarter of Istanbul, anno 2013. The buildings: Row houses built a century-and-a-quarter ago when the neighborhood was populated by Istanbul Greeks; the narrow frontages of the buildings  dictated by late-19th-century regulations issued in the aftermath of fires that had swept gutted swaths of the city. Even day, these balconies continue to form an interstice between private and public space, serving as mini-terraces, extensions of domestic space, and perches for observing street life, chatting with neighbors, or just enjoying late day breezes.

The photo above was taken in 6X9 cm format on 120 color negative roll film through a 55mm Rodenstock lens (viewpoint equal to 24mm on 35mm film or “full-frame sensor” digital formats) mounted on a Toyo folding field camera.  The photo below was taken with my customary APS-C format Fuji X100 digital camera (a “full-frame” equivalent of 35mm).  The negative of the image at the top was scanned but, otherwise, not processed further. The sharpness and optical accuracy of the Rodenstock lens and the delicate colors of negative film stock are inimitable.

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My last post included a photograph of a 1940s military recruiting booth on the Fordham Road overpass at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  Portrayed above, another wonderful oddity of Bronx architecture: Public School 11, originally Grammar School No.91, in the Highbridge  section of the borough. The core structure of the school, designed by George W. Debevoise, was built in 1889.  A portion of a 1905 addition, designed by C.B.J. Snyder.the most prolific of the New York City public school system’s superintendents of building, is visible at the far left of the photo.

New York City’s public schools — or their facades at least — were designed to conjure up ennobling palaces of education in which all pupils could feel equal, and as deliberate contrasts to the often substandard housing from which most pupils came. Public School 11 is a rare example of a  New York City school with a facade inspired by Romanesque Revival, a style that, in the city’s massive school building program, was soon surpassed by Neo-Gothic and later, by Neo-Classicism, Art Deco, and Modernism.

For an introduction to the architecture of New York City’s public schools, click on the website of the NYC Department of Education.  And, if you went to public school in New York in decades past, feel free to join me in singing  a chorus or two of “East Side, West Side”!

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Two images of non-monumental structures, each with monumental tales to tell…

Both photos were taken in the late-1980s on 6×4.5cm transparency film using a light-weight, fixed-lens, wide-angle (28mm-equivalent) Fuji roll-film camera which featured manual focusing by estimation of distance and depth-of-field and a very accurate built-in manual light meter, so accurate, that when using it, I almost never bracketed exposures, not even when the camera was loaded with low-dynamic-range, transparency film. I miss the camera and I miss the 3:4 format ratio of its output.

Above: The one-time Corfu Diner on 10th Avenue and West 18th Street in lower Manhattan, a stereotypical Greek-owned, railway-car inspired diner, and a hangover from a past age when the Hudson River docks still flourished and provided work and ample venues for heavy-eating and hard-drinking to stevedores, truckers, warehouse workers, and others.  I haven’t walked down lower 10th Avenue for many years and have no idea if the Corfu Diner still stands, whether vacant or open in a new incarnation. Any updates are welcome, thus. (Note the slogan on the orange-painted truck parked to the background at the left side of the photo: “Schleppers, Moving Storage, Never a No Show.” The 1980s saw the rise of  independent non-unionized moving companies in New York.  Many, like Schleppers — Yiddish for “draggers” or “carriers” — and Moishe’s were owned by recently arrived Israelis, legal and illegal, and staffed by their compatriots, mostly young, strong, and well pumped-up for long hours of lifting and carrying with liberal rations of cocaine.  Other independent movers provided women with entree into this formerly all-male domain.  The memorable name of one of the first such  company: Mother-Truckers!)

Below: The last of several World-War-II-era US military recruiting booths (this one, if I am correct, originally built for the Navy, per its streamlined art deco take on the bridge and stack of a ship, and later transferred to the Marines) that stood on the Fordham Road overpass spanning the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  (In the background, the Wagner Building, a 1930s office block, one of a piece with the many great art deco apartment and commercial buildings that line the Concourse from 161st St. northward).  From the early-1940s on, generations of neighborhood young people — Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Irish, followed by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African-Americans — volunteered at this and the other booths to fight America’s wars, just and cynical, against enemies real and invented. Some volunteered out of idealism and others for adventure, to avoid prison, or to escape into the larger world and begin life anew.  Many returned alive, be it unscathed or maimed; many others, however, had their lives cut short.

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Street corners.  Anchoring points in the urban landscape.  Places to pause, linger, turn, or confront unexpected vistas.  Apt metaphors for the start of a new year.  Places devoid of meaning from the vantage points of automobiles.

Above and below: Two seemingly nondescript street corners in Istanbul, 2014.

At the top: An intersection in Gümüşsuyu near Taksim — a 1920s apartment house, a late-nineteenth-century neighborhood mosque, and a high-rise cube under construction. Straight ahead, a 45-degree plunge into the quarter of Fındıklı; a turn to the left, and a grid of steep side-streets and concrete stairways wending down to the Bosporus.

At the bottom: A hard-left-turn upwards past a rarely-used sidewalk, a recent generic apartment block, and the wall of a centuries-old cemetery at the edge of Hasköy on the Golden Horn, photographed late one Sunday afternoon at a moment when the roadway was free of its usual, near-continuous, high-speed stream of rattling bus, truck, and automobile traffic

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Above: The main entranceway and facade of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank Building, the Österreichische Postsparkasse (originally the k.k. Postsparcasse Amt, the Royal and Imperial Postal Savings Bank), designed by Otto Wagner and built between 1904 and 1906. Below: The Kassenhalle, the main hall and one-time central banking area of the building.

As the 20th-century began, Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank building brought a new face to public sector architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire — streamlined, free of superfluous decoration, and with meticulous attention to the choice, finish, and unadorned display of materials, including glass, aluminum, and polished steel. Inside and out, the building marked a shift from from Jugendstil to modernism, as well as from ornate neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque displays of state power to aesthetic simplicity and  perfection of the environment in which public employees worked and the general public accessed essential services — secessionist architecture geared both to the public eye and to public health and welfare.

Late-Hapsburg Vienna was a densely-populated city. For most people, housing was substandard, overcrowded, and unhealthy, as were the city’s factories and workshops and   the dank rooms in which ordinary office employees worked long hours.  In tenement dwellings and at work, fresh air and sufficient sunlight were rarities for the bulk of Vienna’s population. Tuberculosis was endemic and  conditions for its transmission rife.

Otto Wagner’s design and implementation of the State Postal Savings Bank building stressed provision of light, circulation of air, and availability of adequate and open work space.  The Kassenhalle, the main banking hall, of the building is a case in point. The photo below shows its overhead glass skylight and its opaque glass-brick floor.  Together, these transmitted a glow of light directly into the hall itself, and indirectly into the postal services section of the building one flight below, thus improving ambience and saving energy at the same time.

Just as the design and implementation of the building eased the lives of those who worked in and patronized it, so did the services the Postsparkasse offered.  The inception of postal savings  in 19th-century Europe brought secure ways to save within the reach of the mass of ordinary people.  Postal savings, however, were founded on more that government largesse; they served to channel volumes of small hordes cash out of proverbial mattresses and other hiding places and into the hands of the state, thus keeping money in circulation and augmenting governmental coffers with what were, in effect, an immense stream of ongoing,  low-interest, long-term loans.

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The night of November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht: the Night of Broken Glass:  Throughout Nazi Germany (including Austria, which had folded itself into Nazi Germany some months before) synagogues were plundered and set afire, with crowds of bystanders cheering and police and fire brigades standing idly by.  Shops owned by Jews were looted and destroyed, Jewish men beaten and arrested, Jewish women terrorized and molested — all this a seeming apotheosis of European religious antisemitism, exclusionary nationalism, “scientific” racism, nostalgia for a past that never was, and urban economic, social, and spatial competition.

In Vienna, all but one of the city’s monumental synagogues and modest prayer-houses were destroyed during the 24-hour rampage.  How are they remembered today?  Barely, and by few.  Memorial plaques mark the sites of a quite a number of the city’s destroyed synagogues, but their texts are as often as not confusing and bland, with events sanitized and the perpetrators obfuscated by overuse of euphemisms and passive voice in German and by shoddy accompanying English-language translations.

Phantasm and Reflection: Two Photos of Monuments without Words

The photographs above and below portray two impressive memorials to two Viennese synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht.  Both eschew words for silence and didacticism for emotion.

The photo at the top was taken through a large plate-glass plaque set as a memorial on the corner of the Eitelbergergasse and Neue-Welt-Gasse in the posh Viennese suburb of Hietzing.  The plaque stands across the street from the one-time site of the “Neue Welt Tempel,” a freestanding structure, quite modern in its time, designed by architect Artur Grünberger in a style seemingly influenced  by the Viennese Secession. The Neue Welt Tempel was constructed in the late-1920s and early-1930s in the midst of Hietzing’s quiet tree-lined sidestreets and Jugendstil mansions.

Silkscreened onto the surface of the glass plaque is a finely-rastered, semi-translucent reproduction of an archival photograph of the exterior of the Neue Welt Tempel taken sometime in the mid-1930s, probably from the exact location where the plaque now stands.  By positioning oneself at just the right angle and distance from the plaque, a viewer is treated to a mirage … suddenly, the present and past are juxtaposed, and a ghost-like image of the Neue Welt Tempel appears to sprout from the surface of the yellow apartment house now standing on its former site. For a moment, the Neue Welt Tempel reappears as if still there … and then, just as suddenly, juxtaposition is lost and the illusion fades.

In the photograph below, a sparse, minimalist garden fills the length and part of the width of the one-time footprint of the 1870s, Neo-Renaissance style, “Turnertempel” synagogue at Turnergasse 22 in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, not far from the Gürtel and the shopping thoroughfare of Mariahilfestrasse.   The greenery at the edges of the garden offsets the starkness of the gravel surface, concrete pathways, and benches of well-weathered wooden beams.  The trees at the left of the photo are lindens. Summers, the scent of linden blossoms fills the garden and, as the weeks pass, fallen linden petals turn into perfumed dust that cushions the garden’s gravel surface. The total effect is apt: life emerging from, but never quite obliterating, destruction.

This past summer, I stopped at the Turnergasse memorial garden a number of times to read, write, reflect and rest.  There were few other visitors: workmen on lunch and cigarette breaks, an occasional pair of daytime beer drinkers, small numbers of neighborhood residents, judging by their appearances and voices, immigrants mostly, from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East.  Did they know what once stood at the site where they were sitting?  Were they aware of its fate?  Could they sense the one-time prayers, concerns, and celebrations of people who had preceded them, and who had played an out-sized role in Vienna’s former greatness and in the shaping of the city in which they now live and the rights and security they now enjoy?  Probably not.  Most people in Vienna,  like most people elsewhere, are propelled by the intentionality of their own immediate concerns.  But for those of us open to it, to those of us who bear the weight of its absence, a presence seems to hover in the garden at Turnergasse.

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Footnote on Resources

For the past months, a small exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum showcased the research and meticulous computer-generated recreations of the exteriors and interiors of Viennese synagogues and the urban contexts in which they once stood, done by Bob Marten and Herbert Peter, and published in book form some years ago as Die zerstörten Synagogen Wiens: Virtuelle Stadtspaziergānge and later in English as The Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna.