Above, further to my previous post (Five Wurst, Kebab, and Noodle Stands, the 10th District, Vienna): A photo of one more Viennese snack stand, Kebab Mann’s Crazy Noodels (sic), taken on the Quellenstrasse in the 10th district on a wintry afternoon a year or so ago. I am posting the photo not only for its bold misspelling of “noodels” (puzzlingly modified by the adjective “crazy”) or for its logo (a portrait, aptly captioned “Kebab Mann,” of Kebab Mann himself, dressed in his own Kebab Mann t-shirt and flanked by a large döner kebab) but also for the over-the-top diversity and eccentric orthography of its menu: Faux-Asian “nudel” (noodle; note the singular), Turkish-inspired”kebab” (properly spelled!), “dürüm” (Turkish-style sandwich of grilled meat wrapped in thin flatbread; note the singular again), German “mann” instead of “man,” and one-hundred-percent-American “hotdog” (again, note the singular). These offerings are augmented by “mais” (corn) and “langosch,” a German phonetic spelling of làngos, Hungarian fried flatbread, the latter lending a faintly nostalgic reminder of the bemoaned Hapsburg Empire. If my memory serves me right, Kebab Mann’s Crazy Noodels now stands derelict, but whether despite or because of its menu, I’m not sure.
Five fast-food “boxes” in Favoriten, the 10th district of Vienna. A (somewhat lengthy) bit of background plus a few reflections — mostly factual but partly speculative — on the content of the photos follows the last of the four images below.
In Vienna, during the 19th-century, wandering vendors sold cooked sausages from baskets and from portable bins — low-cost fast-food for time-pressed workers, many having no cooking facilities in their rented rooms and over-crowded apartments.
By the early-20th century, wheeled sausage carts appeared on the streets Vienna. From the 1960s on, semi-permanent kiosks — würstelstände — took root on the city’s sidewalks and street corners, serving food and drink and providing places to linger and gather — cafe-restaurants, as it were, for people with the shortest of lunch breaks, the thinnest of pocketbooks, the most work-soiled hands and clothes, and the strongest of appetites. As the decades passed, Vienna’s sidewalk würstelstände increased in size, variety, and numbers, and their menus evolved to reflect waves of demographic change.
Today, the backbone of würstelstände offerings remains “traditional” sausages, their origins grounded in the tastes of 19th-century economic migrants to Vienna from the one-time expanses of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: Germanic white and frankfurter sausages, Polish kielbasa, Slovenian meat- and cheese-filled sausages, and paprika-laden sausages of putative Hungarian origin. In recent decades, however, such “traditional” sausages yielded counter-space to fast-food dishes descended from the cuisine of more recent economic migrants from Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Middle East, as well as to Austrian oversimplifications of Asian cuisine. The results have shaped new “traditions” that challenge the imagination and, more painfully, the digestive capabilities of all but the hardiest diners. Not least, the offerings, menus, and signage of the present generation of Viennese würstelstände have also brought about linguistic transformations that compromise the integrity of German, Turkish, and other languages.
Each of the five kiosks portrayed in this post expounds on this tale. All are located along a short stretch of Quellenstrasse in Favoriten, Vienna’s 10th district. From the late-19th-century until the Second World War, Favoriten was a district of factories, brick and tile works, garden farms, and craftsman’s ateliers, and the home of people who worked in and around them. At the start of the 20th-century, the distinctly working-class population of Favoriten comprised large numbers of descendants of emigre Bohemians and Moravians as well as other groups including more than 8,000 Jews, many originally from Hapsburg Galicia. (Favoriten’s immense synagogue, destroyed by arson during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November, 1938, was one of Vienna’s largest and dominated the neighborhood’s skyline). By the middle of the 20th century, the district’s Bohemian and Moravian population had folded into mainstream Vienna, and the Jews of Favoriten had been segregated, terrorized, deported, and murdered by and at the behest of Nazi Germany, of which Austria formed an integral part from 1938-1945.
In the final days of World War II, a large portion of Favoriten’s industrial and housing stock was destroyed by aerial and artillery bombardment followed by house-to-house combat. A massive rebuilding program began in the 1950s. By the 1960s, an exodus of long-time residents from Favoriten to more attractive housing estates and, eventually for some, to more upscale suburban quarters, made room for new arrivals. The first to settle were Turkish “guest workers” followed by their families and then by subsequent waves of Anatolian immigrants. During the decades straddling the turn of the present century, Turks were followed by Serbs, then Bosnians, and, in more recent years, by Chechens, Afghans, Iraqis, and other peoples fleeing places of conflict.
Thoughts on the stands portrayed
The signage of Evin Imbiss, portrayed in the first photo above, is a study in multi-cultural amalgamation. Evin is Turkish for “Your House” and Imbiss a German word for snacks and, later, for snack-bar. A click on the photo will enlarge it, revealing a menu guaranteed to deter all but the hungriest adolescents and low-budget diners with a penchant for the tortures of culinary post-modernism. For a half-century now, newly arrived foreigners in Western Europe have been badgered and oft-times harassed to “integrate.” In its name, offerings, and even its yellow decorative highlights (which seem to blend with the yellow of the building behind it and with the logo on the phone-both at the left of the frame), Evin Imbiss provides an apt, albeit unintended, symbol of a merger of identities.
The stand portrayed in the second photo, Würstel Box, bears a straight-forward, more Germanic, generic name: Würstel being the diminutive of Wurst and Box an anglicism for kiosk. The regular clientele of Würstel Box, however, consists of an uninterrupted day- and night-time stream of boisterous and moderately antisocial high-volume beer drinkers drawn from nearly as many nationalities as now populate the district.
Tiger’s Box, portrayed in the third photo, with its wonderful slogan, Tierisch Gut! (“Beastly Good!”), sells takeaway noodle dishes, bland Austro-Anatolian re-imaginings of Asian mainstays. Note the black-lettered text on the left side of Tiger’s Box, partly obscured by the stand’s half-lowered louvered protective gate. The full text, a vestige of the days when the very same stand sold döner kebab (nb. Middle Eastern shoarma, Greek gyros) reads: “Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen,” in English: “Eat kebab, forget your problems” — a straight-forward spiritual prescription of sufficient wisdom and simplicity to warrant adoption as a mantra.
“Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen” also reveals a linguistic shift made by the word Kebap, a phonetic spelling of kebab, a Turkish catch-all word for roasted or grilled, cubed, sliced, or ground, and sometimes skewered, meat dishes. At Viennese street kiosks such kebabs are served in bread, Middle Eastern, Turkish, or traditionally Viennese. As a result, kebap transitioned from signifying meat dishes to meaning meat sandwiches, and then to meaning sandwiches in general. Going one step further, kebap made a third leap to mean snacks in general. As evidence, note the sign at the far right of the photo: “Kebap Haus,” underscored by its very non-kebab menu: Pizza, Schnitzel, Fisch, and, as an afterthought, Felafel.
The facade of the stand in the fourth photo has an elegant contemporary finish but the modestly small print of the menu stenciled on its display window mirrors the standard neighborhood fare visible in its interior: i.e. pizza and döner.
The stand in the fifth photo takes the word kebap a quantum leap further on a trajectory from its eastern and carnivore roots westward and vegetarian-wards via the somewhat contradictory offering of Gemüse Kebap, i.e. Vegetable Kebab. Not surprisingly, the display window on the other side of the kiosk, not visible in the photo, betrayed an immense, slowly-turning, very non-vegetarian döner kebab.
All five photos were taken with with a dated and increasingly malfunctioning Fuji X100 digital camera augmented with “50mm-equivalent,” screw-on “tele” converter. I’ve also taken a few photographs of the stands on medium format film; depending on the results, I’ll consider posting a few examples following long-overdue processing and scanning.
Three gardens in the town of Kıyıköy on the Black Sea coast of Turkish Thrace.
Kıyıköy — literally: “coastal settlement” — is the all-too-obvious modern Turkish name for the ancient Greek Black Sea port and walled settlement of Medea. By late-Ottoman times, the town, eventually known as Midye — Turkish for “mussel” — was populated in large part by Greeks, whose lives and livelihoods (fishing and coastal shipping) faced seaward, and by Bulgarians, whose lives and livelihoods (dairy production and garden farming) faced inland. Bulgarians left Midye during and after the Balkan Wars of the 1910s, and Greeks in the forced population exchanges that followed Turkey’s war of independence in the 1920s. Demographics have changed — today’s Kıyıköy appears to be populated by Turks and Roma — but the part-Byzantine and part-Ottoman walls of the town still stand and still mark its periphery, and Kıyıköy’s rarely-frequented harbor still provides safe haven from the capricious currents of the Black Sea.
The three gardens portrayed herein are set in the expanse between Kıyıköy’s formerly-Greek town center and its still-extant town walls. At the top: the front garden of the home of a Roma family. Middle: A backyard vegetable garden. Last: A solitary pupil in the playground of a private kindergarten awaiting the imminent start of the school year. All three photos were taken in 2013. The camera: My usual Fuji X100 with and without a wide-angle conversion lens.
In the Kasım Paşa neighborhood of Istanbul, near to the shoreline of the Golden Horn: A simple çeşme (water fountain) flanked by a beverage dispenser so ubiquitous and recognizable that it requires no explanation.
The pattern of the relief on the marble face of the çeşme and the columns to the left and right of the inscription above it, lead me to the very amateur guess that the çeşme dates from the late-18th century. (The oddly perpendicular entablature appears to be a later impromptu addition or repair.) In a no less amateur way, I would date the Coca-Cola machine at the right of the image to the late-20th or early-21st century.
If memory serves me right, in one of his scores of publications, Halil İnalcık, a leading historian of the Ottoman period, famous both for his work and for having turned 100-years-old this year, once held that the provision of a comprehensive water supply and distribution system — from reservoirs to aqueducts to gravity-fed neighborhood outlets and fountains for ritual washing in the courtyards of the great Sultanic and smaller neighborhood mosques that dot Istanbul — was a defining feature of Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver’s 16th-century project of reshaping the Ottoman capital as an “Islamic City.”
As to the development and worldwide availability and popularity of Coca-Cola: This is a long story in and of itself, best saved for treatment in a another context.
Further to “Past Glory,” a weblog entry from 2014, the photos above and below show the present states of two mineral bath structures in the vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria.
A rough-hewn stone structure set at a hillside mineral water source a few kilometers outside of the village of Zhelyaznitsa at the foot of Mt. Vitosha, not far from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The structure contains two bath chambers, one derelict and the second functioning. In an unabashedly Balkan manner, the functioning chamber remains the province of men; the derelict chamber, in principle, is reserved for women.
The ornate former entranceway to the abandoned bathing pavilion at Gorna Banya, a one-time spa resort just outside of Sofia. Today, Gorna Banya is a quiet residential village but in the first decades of the 20th-century, it was sufficiently popular as a resort and suburban residential locale to merit being the terminus of one of Sofia’s first electric trolley-bus routes. In the early years of the last century, Gorna Banya had the added panache of being the site of Bulgaria’s military cavalry school and later, less romantically, of an armored tank battalion.
As to the style of the entranceway, if the decision was left to me, I’d label it “Balkan-Neo-Secessionist-Neo-Ottoman” — a combination of the characteristic styles of two vanished empires but built of a Balkan provincial mix of brick, plaster, and ceramic roof tiles. Any other suggestions as to stylistic labels, or any information about the history and prospects of the bath pavilion and its surroundings, are most welcome.
While the bath pavilion molders, a couple of hundred meters away from it, on the other side of the village green, a nondescript commercial structure is being converted into an impromptu gambling casino, a usage, it seems, still in accord with the developmental ethos and preferences of Sofia’s private sector and decision-makers .
Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard
The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.
Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:
Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
A broad view …
My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.
Envelope as infrastructure …
Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills. Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers. As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.
Societal glue …
Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue. The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.” Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.
The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources. The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.
And failure …
The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades. On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication. On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading. The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption. Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters. And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer. As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.
A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …
I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal. Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors. But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple. To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder. Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels. A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process. Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city. For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.
* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions. Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall. Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.
Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job
On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky! Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate. I’ll explain …
First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane. Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.
The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.
So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.