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Monthly Archives: April 2016

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

 

More Accidental Aesthetics of Insulation

Above and below: Further to my last post, three more images of the accidental aesthetics of the downward relegation of building-envelope maintenance and insulation of legacy structures — one of the major pressure points for achieving heat and energy conservation in the built environment worldwide — from national  governments to regional authorities, to municipalities, to tenants’ councils and cooperatives, and, in the end, to (“the-buck-stops-here!”) those individual residents with the cash or credit to insulate the external walls of their apartments on their own.  The serendipity of the visual outcomes belies the inefficiency and absurdity of apartment-by-apartment solutions to what is a serious energy conservation, environmental, and quality-of-life issue worldwide.

Murals: For Whom and Why?

In my last post, I asked any and all who happened to stumble onto this site to share with me whatever they might know about about who were responsible for the giant murals that have appeared on, among other large surfaces in Sofia, the formerly-bare lateral walls of Soviet-era concrete panel block apartment buildings in several neighborhoods.  I received two responses:

The first was an email from Sofia green-architect, urban activist, and restorer of traditional wood-fired baking ovens, Martin Mikush. Martin pointed me to this 20-minute video on the work of one group of muralists. The video is beautifully shot and carefully tracks the entire mural-painting process — from initial sketches, to scaffold building, to the masterful painting itself —  but all this becomes overwhelmed by repetitive interspersed vignettes interspersed portraying the self-styled “hipness” and narcissistic “campy” antics of the artists themselves.  Only in a couple of cases of lovely murals portraying themes from nature, do the artists share and explain their intents and  searches for subject matter.  For the rest, the video seems a self-congratulatory celebration of the artists’ cultivated hipness.  The film says nothing about the residents of the buildings and neighborhoods that provide them with their canvases — neither about residents’ approval of, participation in, nor reactions to the artists’ seemingly well-funded efforts.  Indeed, much of the video appears to have been shot in off-hours when the streets are uncharacteristically empty and void of the usual streams of passersby.  The only public reaction to the murals included in the video are a few enthusiastic words from a parked taxi driver. In the end, the video is more self-promotional than documentary.

Apparently the video, the website on which it appears, and the mural project itself were funded by an “NGO” (a so-called “non-governmental organization”) in this case one funded by Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, of all places.  One of the ironies in Eastern Europe in the more than quarter-century the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its client governments is that many functions and responsibilities have devolved from governments to non-governmental organizations that are in no ways grass-roots but, rather, are funded by foreign governments with their own values and agendas, and conceived and run by locals having a sufficient strong witch’s-brew of competence, nerve, connections, personal agendas, and knack for self-promotion to apply for and win such grants.

Each time I walk past the murals that I’ve posted photos of on this site, I wonder whether provisions were made to insulate walls before murals were applied. I also try to imagine what the walls on which the murals are painted will look like next year or after five years or ten.  Will the visual fields of neighborhood residents be confronted with expanses of sadly-peeling paint and the faded remains of images that were once novel but that long since have become tiresome? Have the donors and artists made provisions for maintaining the murals or periodically painting them, either with a fresh coat of paint to allow eyes to rest or with the works of other artists?  Or, after all the fun, publicity, and  self-congratulatory back-patting, will the artists have moved on to new opportunities for self-expression and career-building and the donors to larger budgets and new disbursements, thus leaving residents of buildings and neighborhoods involved with the tattered legacies of the no-longer-timely visions of others?  I’ll write more about this if/when answers emerge.  Again, any and all hints, links, and contrary opinions are welcome.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Internets Celebrities to the Rescue

It shouldn’t have surprised me that another part of the (to me) puzzle of the provenance of the Sofia murals was cleared-up in a flash by a comment posted from New York by Rafi Kam.  Rafi pointed out three apartment block murals indeed had been vetted and approved by local authorities. He also sent links to sites that reveal the provenance of murals portrayed in each of the three photos I’ve posted.  The girl holding the mystery gift is by the internationally active Polish street-art duo Etam Cru. The smoker and the urban creature are by a Bulgarian artist, Bozko.

At the moment, in a bit of longer-form writing plus photographic documentation I am trying to place such murals in the context of evolving concepts of public space and divisions of public and private realms in Sofia and elsewhere. I wonder if the towering projections of the subjective visions of Etam Cru and Bozko divorce residents from their surroundings or unite them in a sense of shared ownership. Another, power-related, issue lurks in the background: the neighborhood in which the murals are painted was for long one of Sofia’s lower income and poorly maintained quarters.  Do the building murals add value to the lives of the residents or do they represent a sort of artistic colonialism and appropriation of space by the culturally empowered?  I’m not yet sure which.

Rafi Kam, by the way, together with Dallas Penn, is the on-camera side of the urban culture gadfly team Internets Celebrities (slogan: “kicking truth to the online youth”). By the way, that’s indeed internets in the plural, this out of homage to a celebrated malapropism by a master of malapropism, George Bush.  Among the Internets Celebrities’ many  works is the short video Bronx Bodega, a hilarious but very much to the point tour of the once emblematic  Puerto Rican and Domican bodega corner grocery stores of New York City’s poorer neighborhoods, neighborhoods under-served by food retailers and by everything else for that matter.  I always recommend Bronx Bodega as an essential part of the canon of urbanism, and as a slyly humorous work of comic improvisation as well.

A Virtual Plate of Chicharron

The Internets Celebrities now ride through cyberspace and the NYC subways in their latest avatars as the Food Warriors.  In addition to the coincidence of Rafi holding the answer to the provenance of murals in Sofia, here’s a second, culinary, coincidence proving that not only do great minds think alike but that great gourmands binge alike and great New Yorkers explore alike.  My very first click on the Food Warriors’ website brought me to their recent account of a visit to La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights, a place that has many times caused me to salivate while walking past and that I regret never entered.  Thanks, thus, Food Warriors, for the virtual dreamed-of but never tasted meal!

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Mural, housing block, Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 with +1.4 lens adaptor. Click on image to enlarge.

Further to a previous entry on the presence (and, to me, mystery) of a spate of apartment-building-height murals, psychedelic in style and puzzling in content, in the adjacent Sofia neighborhoods of Poduyane and Hadji Dimitar, I’ve posted a photo of a third such mural above.

I’ve selected the photo not just for its bizarreness and whimsicality nor for the issues it raises as to the ownership and aesthetics of the public realm.  Rather, a close examination of the building on which the mural is painted summarizes a full set of urban issues which I have been researching, conceptualizing, and visually portraying over the past months and into which — ideas for grant support, anyone?!? — I intend to delve further in the time to come.

Specifically, note the balconies on the right-hand face of the building, some open as per their original design and others closed-in to expand private space.  Balconies, as I hope to explain in subsequent posts, are interstices between public and private space, and Sofia is a city of balconies. How balconies are, or are not, used reveals much about the history of and changes in social and politic environments and individual responses thereto.

Also note the monochrome, but vaguely Mondriaan-like, effect on the walls of the building in the photo above, an effect more pronounced in the photo that I’ve added below. The question of why such buildings have been insulated apartment-by-apartment rather than building-by-building, and what this tells us about societies and governments, is one that I have also been examining and visually documenting of late.  Although the aesthetic effect of uncoordinated action by apartment owners on their own relieves monotony and adds color to the public realm, devolution to the individual apartment owners is the most inefficient and inequitable means of preserving public health and comfort and of cutting heat-loss through building envelops, possibly the most weighty contributor to energy consumption/inefficiency in the built environment.  Hopefully, more on this as well.

Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/ +1.4 lens adaptor. The uncoordinated color schemes of privately insulated apartments on the facade lends an accidental Mondriaan-like counterpoint to the neo-psychedelica of the mural on the lateral face of the building.

Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/ +1.4 lens adaptor. The uncoordinated color schemes of private insulated apartments on the facade lends an accidental Mondriaan-like counterpoint to the neo-psychedelica of the mural on the building’s lateral face.

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Roma blacksmith, Stoliponovo quarter, Plovdiv (Filibe), Bulgaria, 1997. Nikon F3, 35mm f2.0 lens, b/w negative, scan of print. Click on image to enlarge.

Friday was International Roma Day, the annual celebration of the survival of the Romani (Gypsy) people and the commemoration of the Europe-wide persecution and mass murder of Roma by the Germans and their fellows during the Second World War.

In honor of my Roma friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, and of Roma throughout Europe, I’ve posted the photo above.  The choice of the photo is intentional.  The face and tools of the subject show energy, openness, pride, and mastery of craft.  But, on another level, the photo tells a darker tale.  In Eastern Europe, Roma are still relegated fringes of society.  Spatial segregation, exile to the urban edge, and segregated schools block mobility.  The need for traditional crafts and labor as once practiced by Roma declined to near naught over the past half-century as tool-wielding and agricultural village economies faded and the age of mass-produced and disposable goods arose.  Entree to successive waves of “new economies” — precision manufacturing, financial, service,  high-tech, etc. — has been barred to Roma by the vicious circle of educational and residential apartheid compounded by the outspoken racism that is still run-of-the-mill in the ideologically mono-ethnic “new democracies” of Eastern Europe — including Bulgaria, where I took the photo above a full twenty years ago and write these words today.

No reason to be too bleak however, Roma work hard, improvise as best the can, and try to enjoy life in the process.  So, even if it is a couple of days too late, why join me in a rousing chorus of the Romani anthem, Djelem, Djelem (English-language translation of lyrics, here).

 

Mural, warehouse, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x tele converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Mural, warehouse, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x tele converter. Click on image to enlarge.

I have no nostalgia for the 1960’s. I was not a hippy. I liked jazz and R&B; indeed, white rock music seemed to work counter to my biorhythms. I was into the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements and couldn’t comprehend psychedelica.  I looked and felt ridiculous in bell-bottomed,”hip-hugger” trousers and “love-beads,” and — alas! — I didn’t “ball” at Woodstock.  The rise of graffiti in the 1970’s also left me cold.  For many of us native to the “inner city,” the proliferation of graffiti was an added degradation and a upsetting sign of social atomization and the break-up of consensus, an aggressive imposition without consent onto the visual fields of the many by the out-sized and aggressive egos of a few, and a notice of abandonment by those outsized-ly enfranchised, economically and politically, and at a safe remove from urban grit.

Nevertheless, I smile at the murals portrayed in the photos above and below, two among several that have appeared recently in the working-class quarter of Poduyane in Sofia, Bulgaria.  The murals add a touch of brightness, whimsicality, and edge — I just hope that they were done with the participation and consent of neighborhood residents!*  Not least, the murals pose at least one iconographic improvement:  A few years ago, the only apartment-block-height “artwork” adorning building exteriors in Poduyane and the neighboring quarter of Hadji Dimitar were giant banners silk-screened with the smug, scowling face of the pint-sized leader of Ataka, Bulgaria’s  disturbingly popular antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim, neo-fascist political party. Give me psychedelica any day!

* If any of you who happen upon this site know something about who did the murals and/or how they were conceived, approved, implemented, and received, please get in touch.

Mural, apartment block, Podyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x wide-angle converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Mural, apartment block, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x wide-angle converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Spolia, Seljuk Mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Spolia embedded in the facade of a Seljuk-era mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Two examples of spolia, the re-use of architectural building and decorative elements outside of their original contexts.  At its most basic, appropriation and utilization of spolia provided ready sources of materials and a seeming dedication to recycling.  At a deeper level, however, use of spolia usurped and appropriated the might and worth of  rulers, donors, and civilizations who originally built the monuments from which spolia elements were taken, and imbued new structures with added significance.

Hellenistic builders appropriated spolia from ancient monuments in Egypt and the near-east, Romans did the same, Byzantium appropriated spolia from Romans, Greeks, and their predecessors. The Ottoman empire, in turn, harvested spolia from Byzantium and its predecessors.  In Istanbul, for example, free-standing obelisks and columns columns supporting the porticoes of great Sultanic mosques were taken from ancient temples and public buildings throughout the span of lands absorbed by the Ottomans.

Spolia at its most prosaic

The photos above and below portray the appropriation and application of spolia at the smallest of scales and at its most random and utilitarian.  In the image above a pastiche of non-monumental classical elements adds a bit of decorative “pizazz” to the entrance way of an otherwise sparse Seljuk-era mausoleum. ( Whether the spolia elements were emplaced during the original construction of the mausoleum or after-the-fact is beyond my competence to assess.)  In the image below, an inverted Byzantine capital is re-purposed to serve as the base for a garden-variety, hand-powered water-pump, itself re-purposed as a spout — an unintentional symbol of the triumph of the needs of small-scale basic craft over Byzantine grandeur (nb. the pump/capital ensemble is set in the courtyard of a Han designed nearly half a millennium ago by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, but occupied over the past century by the no-frills ateliers of independent metal workers).  In both cases, the utility of spolia, and maybe even a drop of pride at its display, trumps any pretense of design.

Liberation from the terror of design

Subjectively, the (non-)aesthetic of such utility and pride in the display of the the recycled resonates deeply for me.  Decades ago, I spent years living and working in the Netherlands, a country in which strict, linear, minimalist design ruled and constrained life in the public and private realms.  Building facades, both legacy and new, were characterized by uniformity of height and materials and by an absolute minimum of decoration.  In the field of graphic design, tiny type-faces and eschewal of serifs ensured that the covers and pages of Dutch publications were geometrically beautiful … but highly unreadable.  For the Dutch, so it seemed, form trumped content and, as often as not, utility as well. During my years in the Netherlands, one of the leading design practices was an Amsterdam firm, Total Design, a name tastelessly similar to “total war,” Germany’s slogan in the final years of World War II for complete commitment of resources to the ruthless and murderous pursuit of victory — an apt, albeit tasteless, metaphor for the compulsory imposition of uniform aesthetic dictates on all aspects of life.

I find the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic of spolia far more compelling.  The combination of random elements taken out of their original contexts transcends uniformity, negates original aesthetic and pragmatic dictates, generates spontaneity, and creates profound (and even humorous!) mergers, not only of materials, surfaces, and patterns, but also of times, spaces, cultures, and intents.  In short, it enables continuous rearrangement and represents a triumph of accretion and serendipity of the imposition of design.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Scan of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.