The Farnsworth House

Wikipedia.

From The Spectator (hat tip: Instapundit), a review of Broken Glass, a new book about Mies van der Rohe’s controversial Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill.

To see the Farnsworth House in reality is to understand how perfection can be revealed in steel and glass. It is an understanding no visitor can resist. But to live in it — as I once did for several days — is to put every assumption of the modernist aesthetic to severe test.

It is an astonishingly beautiful building, as visceral as it is intellectual. The way in which elementary materials and ‘nearly nothing’ have a transcendent effect is profound. It floats, perfect proportions denying material weight. From outside it looks agreeably alien; from inside, its transparency makes landscape captive. And the architect’s attention to the logic of structure and to detail is revelatory. Rivet heads were painstakingly ground off at steel junctions to make visually perfect joints. The frame is made with such fanatical precision that it responds to impacts like a tuning fork. As a whole, the Farnsworth House improves upon nature, which was Voltaire’s definition of art.

Yet it is absurd. Mies insisted on building on the Fox River’s floodplain, the better to enjoy the local woods. He refused thermally efficient double-glazing. Only after protest was Farnsworth allowed a wardrobe; Mies said it was a weekend house and the necessary single dress could be hung out of sight behind the bathroom door. He was adamant that his own furniture designs were used rather than his client’s preferences. Moreover, his architectural training had not included Mechanical & Electrical Services, so he knew nothing of plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, drainage or power supply. Water seepage from above complemented the rising damp caused by the turbulent, intrusive Fox below. The house was an oven in summer and a freezer in winter. Ugly stains soon appeared. When Farnsworth complained about the exiguous fireplace, Mies said: ‘Get smaller logs.’

The original budget had been $10,000. But this ‘functionalist’ architect was notoriously sloppy in business, and the account came to seven times as much. Despite his managerial incompetence, Mies took Farnsworth to court over unpaid fees and won. Her revenge was to fill the house with unsuitable furniture — and eventually to go to live in Italy (where her relationship with the poet Eugenio Montale was another episode of Euro-flavored unrequited love).

Farnsworth House is a magnificent catastrophe, a manifesto of designer arrogance, a maintenance nightmare, an unlivable space where God fought with Satan over the details, especially the boiler and drains. And it is now a national monument, a pilgrimage site for architecture students from all over the world. Widely imitated (by designers whom Nikolaus Pevsner called ‘three blind Mies’), it has never been bettered. In a sense, it couldn’t be.

I wrote a paper in college about Mies van der Rohe’s directorship of the Bauhaus in the early 1930s, before it was closed by the Nazis, which assured its fame forever. Thus did most of the material that I consulted for that paper take a rather hagiographic approach to modernist architecture and its practitioners. It took Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) to expose their arrogance and even incompetence. 

Anyway, the Farnsworth House is now a museum, and you can take a virtual tour of the place. 

The Churchill Myth

From The Guardian:

Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill?

Priyamvada Gopal
 

A baleful silence attends one of the most talked-about figures in British history. You may enthuse endlessly about Winston Churchill “single-handedly” defeating Hitler. But mention his views on race or his colonial policies, and you’ll be instantly drowned in ferocious and orchestrated vitriol.

In a sea of fawningly reverential Churchill biographies, hardly any books seriously examine his documented racism. Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to complicate, let alone tarnish, the national myth of a flawless hero: an idol who “saved our civilisation”, as Boris Johnson claims, or “humanity as a whole”, as David Cameron did. Make an uncomfortable observation about his views on white supremacy and the likes of Piers Morgan will ask: “Why do you live in this country?

Not everyone is content to be told to be quiet because they would be “speaking German” if not for Churchill. Many people want to know more about the historical figures they are required to admire uncritically. The Black Lives Matter protests last June – during which the word “racist” was sprayed in red letters on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, were accompanied by demands for more education on race, empire and the figures whose statues dot our landscapes.

Yet providing a fuller picture is made difficult. Scholars who explore less illustrious sides of Churchill are treated dismissively. Take the example of Churchill College, Cambridge, where I am a teaching fellow. In response to calls for fuller information about its founder, the college set up a series of events on Churchill, Empire and Race. I recently chaired the second of these, a panel discussion on “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill”.

More at the link. I confess that I’m a sucker for the Churchill myth, but even I will admit that he has more than a few skeletons in his closet, and it’s not a bad thing to examine all aspects of a person’s legacy. Christopher Hitchens explored this issue back in 2002 for The Atlantic. (Hitchens does claim the Churchill was right about the one thing that mattered.)

UPDATE: A friend comments:

It’s interesting that Gopal situates her critique of Churchill within the academically uncontroversial bounds of providing a more truthful and nuanced picture of an important historical figure.

We all know that’s not what she is aiming to do and that it is about destroying one narrative and replacing it with another.

That’s why she has encountered so much emotional resistance and it’s disingenuous to pretend that this is nothing more than a liberal exercise in pursuing historical truth.

Otto Rahn

Dan Franke asks: “You want a medieval studies Nazi Germany mystery? Look no further.” From Wikipedia:

Otto Wilhelm Rahn (18 February 1904 – 13 March 1939) was a German writer, medievalistAriosophist, and an officer of the SS and researcher into the Grail myths. He was born in Michelstadt, Germany, and died in Söll (KufsteinTyrol) in Austria. Speculation still surrounds Otto Rahn and his research.

From an early age, Rahn became interested in the legends of Parzival, the Holy GrailLohengrin and the Nibelungenlied. While attending the University of Giessen, he was inspired by his professor, Baron von Gall, to study the Albigensian (Catharism) movement and the massacre that occurred at Montségur.

In 1931, he travelled to the Pyrenees region of southern France where he conducted most of his research. Aided by the French mystic and historian Antonin Gadal, Rahn argued that there was a direct link between Wolfram von Eschenbach‘s Parzival and the Cathar Grail mystery. He believed that the Cathars held the answer to this sacred mystery and that the keys to their secrets lay somewhere beneath the mountain peak where the fortress of Montségur remains, the last Cathar fortress to fall during the Albigensian Crusade.

Rahn wrote two books linking Montségur and Cathars with the Holy Grail: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (Crusade Against the Grail) in 1933 and Luzifers Hofgesind (Lucifer’s Court) in 1937. After the publication of his first book, Rahn’s work came to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who was fascinated by the occult and had already initiated research in the south of France. Rahn joined his staff as a junior non-commissioned officer and became a full member of the SS in 1936, achieving the rank of Obersturmführer.

It was an uneasy partnership for Otto Rahn; later, he explained his SS membership to friends in the following way: “A man has to eat. What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?” Journeys for his second book led Rahn to places in Germany, France, Italy and Iceland. Openly homosexual, frequenting anti-Nazi circles, and having fallen out of favor with the Nazi leadership, Rahn was assigned guard duty at the Dachau concentration camp in 1937 as punishment for a drunken homosexual scrape. He resigned from the SS in 1939.

But the SS would not allow anyone to resign without consequences. Soon, Rahn found out the Gestapo was after him, and he was even offered the option of committing suicide. He vanished. On 13 March 1939, nearly on the anniversary of the fall of Montségur, Rahn was found frozen to death on a mountainside near Söll (KufsteinTyrol) in Austria. His death was officially ruled a suicide.

Crazy stuff! 

Thomas A. Dorsey

A Wikipedia discovery, with a local connection:

Wikipedia.

Thomas Andrew Dorsey (July 1, 1899 – January 23, 1993) was an American musician, composer, and Christian evangelist influential in the development of early blues and 20th-century gospel music. He penned 3,000 songs, a third of them gospel, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley“. Recordings of these sold millions of copies in both gospel and secular markets in the 20th century.

Born in rural Georgia, Dorsey grew up in a religious family but gained most of his musical experience playing blues at barrelhouses and parties in Atlanta. He moved to Chicago and became a proficient composer and arranger of jazz and vaudeville just as blues was becoming popular. He gained fame accompanying blues belter Ma Rainey on tour and, billed as “Georgia Tom”, joined with guitarist Tampa Red in a successful recording career.

After a spiritual awakening, Dorsey began concentrating on writing and arranging religious music. Aside from the lyrics, he saw no real distinction between blues and church music, and viewed songs as a supplement to spoken word preaching. Dorsey served as the music director at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church for 50 years, introducing musical improvisation and encouraging personal elements of participation such as clapping, stomping, and shouting in churches when these were widely condemned as unrefined and common. In 1932, he co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, an organization dedicated to training musicians and singers from all over the U.S. that remains active. The first generation of gospel singers in the 20th century worked or trained with Dorsey: Sallie MartinMahalia JacksonRoberta Martin, and James Cleveland, among others.

Author Anthony Heilbut summarized Dorsey’s influence by saying he “combined the good news of gospel with the bad news of blues”. Called the “Father of Gospel Music” and often credited with creating it, Dorsey more accurately spawned a movement that popularized gospel blues throughout black churches in the United States, which in turn influenced American music and parts of society at large.

“Rural Georgia” = Villa Rica, a town about an hour to the southwest of Reinhardt. Note that this is not Tommy Dorsey, the famed big band leader. 

The Four Chaplains

On this day in 1943 was sunk the SS Dorchester by the German submarine U-223, an example of a fairly regular occurrence in the Atlantic during the Second World War. The Dorchester was a passenger steamship requisitioned for the American war effort and was transporting U.S. troops from New York to Greenland; the whole thing was over very quickly, with the unfortunate result that 674 of the 904 men on board perished. 

Wikipedia.

This episode is famous for the actions of the Four Chaplains, who voluntarily gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. They joined arms and said prayers as they went down with the ship. Since that time they have become a symbolic of heroism and self-sacrifice; that two were Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish, has become an edifying example of “interfaith in action,” as the postage stamp says. (One could say that this story comes across as propaganda, an attempt at salvaging some inspiration from the usual wartime disaster, but it really happened, and it really is inspiring.)

Children by Post

Apparently, at one point you could send children through the mail. From Smithsonian Magazine:

One of the most overlooked, yet most significant innovations of the early 20th century might be the Post Office’s decision to start shipping large parcels and packages through the mail. While private delivery companies flourished during the 19th century, the Parcel Post dramatically expanded the reach of mail-order companies to America’s many rural communities, as well as the demand for their products. When the Post Office’s Parcel Post officially began on January 1, 1913, the new service suddenly allowed millions of Americans great access to all kinds of goods and services. But almost immediately, it had some unintended consequences as some parents tried to send their children through the mail.

“It got some headlines when it happened, probably because it was so cute,” United States Postal Service historian Jenny Lynch tells Smithsonian.com.

Just a few weeks after Parcel Post began, an Ohio couple named Jesse and Mathilda Beagle “mailed” their 8-month-old son James to his grandmother, who lived just a few miles away in Batavia. According to Lynch, Baby James was just shy of the 11-pound weight limit for packages sent via Parcel Post, and his “delivery” cost his parents only 15 cents in postage (although they did insure him for $50). The quirky story soon made newspapers, and for the next several years, similar stories would occasionally surface as other parents followed suit.

More at the link.

Penn Central Crash

In City Journal, a look back at the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad (hat tip: Instapundit), which provides some salutary lessons on how not to run a business:

After the merger [of the Pennsylvania and the New York Central], the railroads discovered that they had incompatible computer systems, which threw railyards into chaos and angered customers. The Penn Central’s three top officials, too, were incompatible. They “scarcely spoke to one another,” write Daughen and Binzen. Stuart Saunders, the board chairman, was a political guy. Alfred Perlman, the president, was a trains guy. These different outlooks could have complemented each other, but personalities got in the way. Rounding out this dysfunctional triumvirate was Penn vet David Bevan, the top financial official, perpetually “angry and humiliated” at not being picked for the top job.

Bevan had two ideas for keeping the cash-bleeding Penn Central alive: corporate diversification and financial trickery. If a railroad couldn’t make money, he thought, perhaps it could invest its cash in entities that could make money. The Penn had a head start in this; it already owned vast swathes of real estate around Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, including five hotels and a share in Madison Square Garden, as well as the New York Rangers and Knicks.

Bevan added to this conservative legacy portfolio a bizarre array of new business interests, from an executive-jet company (he was its best customer) to pipelines, speculative land tracts in the southern U.S., and a travel agency. “Nobody . . . could name the 186 different companies . . . under the Penn Central’s umbrella,” Daughen and Binzen write. Under Bevan’s stewardship, these companies often sold stakes of themselves to one another, generating illusory paper profits. The Penn also had touchingly optimistic views about the future, booking years’ worth of profits, for example, when a third party agreed to buy a tract of real estate for which it wouldn’t actually be able to pay for years. Bevan was also determined to take some of the supposed profits of these deals for himself, setting up an “investment club” with several associates to buy and sell shares in these side companies before the much bigger Penn Central did, thus benefiting from the subsequent price changes.

These innovative methods didn’t generate the money that the Penn Central needed to balance the books, however. So Bevan turned to straightforward borrowing. With $1.5 billion in annual revenue, the Penn borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from the nation’s largest banks, including more than $100 million in the nascent “commercial paper” market. This market of short-term loans was meant not for permanent operating deficits but to cover temporary shortfalls like meeting payroll just before a customer paid for a big order. The banks didn’t ask questions, though, because Penn Central had such a solid reputation—and because it was such a good fee-payer.

This three-card monte game lasted—until it didn’t. At First National City, the predecessor of Citigroup, chief Walter Wriston was “furious at his loan officers for getting his bank so deeply involved”—$300 million in loans—“without knowing what a hole the Penn Central was in.” Members of the Penn Central’s august board were also mad—though many of them perhaps never thought to ask questions because they headed companies that were themselves customers of or vendors for the railroad.

The banks’ and the board members’ big idea was to ask the federal government for a bailout. President Richard Nixon vacillated but ultimately said no, on the basis of the now-quaint idea that Congress would have to agree, which it did not.

The railroad then declared bankruptcy in June 1970, having lasted just 871 days. “Never before had there been a cataclysm as stunning as this,” write Daughen and Binzen. “What had been conceived of as the most awesome transportation machine in the world had ended as the most monumental business failure in United States history . . . How the mighty fell: Stuart Saunders, businessman of the year in 1968, business bankrupt of the year in 1970.” Saunders had a rejoinder: “I didn’t have anything to do with the concept of the Penn Central.”

Read the whole thing

Ernst Kantorowicz

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip: Paul Halsall), a remembrance of a mildly famous mid-century episode:

The Right-Wing Medievalist Who Refused the Loyalty Oath: On Ernst Kantorowicz, academic freedom, and “the secret university.”

In 1950, Ernst Kantorowicz, a distinguished professor of medieval history, was fired from the University of California at Berkeley for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty, which had been mandated, in a fit of Cold War panic, by the University of California’s Board of Regents. Kantorowicz principally objected to the Board of Regents’ requirement that all professors with U.S. citizenship declare in writing that they upheld the Constitution and were not members of any organization advocating the government’s overthrow.

Kantorowicz was by no means alone in his refusal to sign. Across the UC system, another 36 tenured professors lost their jobs alongside him. As it turned out, California’s Supreme Court overturned the sackings. By then it didn’t matter much for Kantorowicz. He had already found a job at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Looking back, this incident may seem trivial enough: just another display of Cold War paranoia, just another demonstration of supine conciliation on the part of university authorities.

But we shouldn’t let Kantorowicz’s firing fall out of institutional memory. If anything, his act has become more rather than less significant, because, paradoxically, the reasons he gave for his refusal were so peculiar, so out of touch. They were remote from ordinary ways of thinking about the professoriate’s role and status then. They are even more remote now. This very remoteness can suggest new ways for professors to relate to the university system today, as it becomes unmoored from centuries-old traditions and legitimations and as the empire of obsolescence expands.

In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal primarily to the notion of “academic freedom” as articulated by John Dewey and others earlier in the century. Nor did he refuse to sign because he was any kind of leftist. To the contrary, he was (as he put it in the pamphlet he wrote about the affair) a “conservative” who, as a volunteer fighter against the Munich 1919 uprising, had actually killed Communists.

His reasons appealed to a different conceptual or institutional tradition than any acknowledged either in modern politics or by modern academic administration. He believed that a professor is “entrusted with” an office in a particular “body corporate,” or corpus mysticum, i.e., a university. That status was defined in medieval Europe when universities were established as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium — as bodies made up of students and professors and nobody else.

As a corporation, the university had a particular legal status. It could not be identified with the sum of its members; it was rather a disembodied entity, permanent and immortal. What enabled the scholar to participate in the university was professorial office, which endowed its bearer with “dignity.” Dignity, thus conceived, is not a personal comportment but a quality essential to office. Or rather: In a permanent, mystical institution, dignity fuses office to the private personality, as Kantorowicz put it in his most famous book, The King’s Two Bodies (1957).

As a corpus mysticum, the university is a corporation in a different sense than the modern business enterprise. Because students and professors were the embodied corpus mysticum, regents or janitors, for instance, do not themselves belong to the university proper. They are attached outsiders. Janitors, for instance, merely keep the campus clean. Regents ensure that formal university procedures as mandated by the state are observed. But as members of the university’s body corporate, professors were not employees at all.

In other words, for Kantorowicz, a professorship was a public trust. No one had control over professors. No one measured their performance. The dignity of the professorial office called upon its bearers to act according to their “conscience,” which was held to be inseparable from the professor’s “genuine duties as member of the academic body corporate.” Furthermore, dignity required them to enact their conscience with “passion” and “love.” It involved a willingness to sacrifice their embodied self for the sake of the office: a concept of sacrifice whose historical origins included God’s sacrifice of Christ’s humanity.

Yeah, I’d say that sounds out of touch! For more on this episode read the whole thing, and the chapter on “The Nazi Twins” in Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1989). 

Long Live our Soviet Motherland!

From History Today (hat tip: Ron Good):

Could the Soviet Union Have Survived?

We ask four historians whether the demise of one of the 20th century’s superpowers was as inevitable as it now seems.

Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1988-91) and author of Armageddon and Paranoia: the Nuclear Confrontation (Profile, 2017).

People still argue about the fall of the Roman Empire. They are not going to agree quickly on why the Soviet Union collapsed when it did. Some think it could have lasted for many years, others that the collapse was unforeseeable. Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident scientist, foresaw it decades before it happened.

Victory in war took the Soviet armies to the centre of Europe, where they stayed. The Soviet Union’s seductive ideology had already given it influence across the world. But after Stalin’s death in 1953 the ideology started looking threadbare, even at home. In Eastern Europe, inside the Soviet Union itself, the subject peoples were increasingly restless for freedom. Soviet scientists were the equal of any in the world, but their country was too poor to afford both guns and butter and their skills were directed towards matching the American military machine, rather than improving the people’s welfare. It worked for a while. But in 1983 the Soviet Chief of Staff admitted that ‘We will never be able to catch up with [the Americans] in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution’. 

The Soviet leaders were not stupid. They knew something had to be done. In 1985, after three decrepit leaders died in succession, they picked Mikhail Gorbachev to run the country: young, experienced, competent and – they wrongly thought – orthodox. But Gorbachev believed that change was inescapable. He curbed the KGB, freed the press and introduced a kind of democracy. He was defeated by a conservative establishment, an intractable economy and an unsustainable imperial burden. It was the fatal moment, identified by the 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, when a decaying regime tries to reform – and disintegrates.

Russians call Gorbachev a traitor for failing to prevent the collapse by force. Foreigners dismiss him as an inadequate bungler. No one has suggested a convincing alternative scenario. 

The other participants reference Gorbachev’s attempts to curb drinking on the job (“Did he understand who he was getting into a fight with?”), anti-Soviet demonstrations in the Kazakh SSR in 1986 (did you know about these? I didn’t!), and Glasnost, i.e. Gorbachev’s policy of press freedom, which undermined the “key to the survival of any dictatorship, [which] is strict control of the media, which shapes public opinion and promotes tacit acceptance of a regime.” I seem to remember Christopher Hitchens once offered a similar answer. 

Read ’em all

Murdoch Mysteries

Historical characters I have learned about from watching Murdoch Mysteries:

Florence Nightingale Graham (1881-1966), who went by the business name Elizabeth Arden, was a Canadian-American businesswoman who founded what is now Elizabeth Arden, Inc. and built a cosmetics empire in the United States. By 1929, she owned 150 salons in Europe and the United States. Her 1,000 products were being sold in 22 countries. She was the sole owner, and at the peak of her career she was one of the wealthiest women in the world.

Dan Seavey, also known as “Roaring” Dan Seavey (1865-1949), was a sailor, fisherman, farmer, saloon keeper, prospector, U.S. marshal, thief, poacher, smuggler, hijacker, human trafficker, and timber pirate in Wisconsin and Michigan and on the Great Lakes in the late-19th to early-20th century.

John Joseph Kelso (1864-1935) was a newspaper reporter and social crusader who immigrated to Canada from Ireland with his family in 1874 when he was ten years old. They suffered hardships of hunger and cold in their early years in Toronto and, throughout his life, this motivated Kelso’s compassion towards the poor and unfortunate. While a reporter for the World and the Globe, Kelso founded the Toronto Humane Society in 1887 for the prevention of cruelty to children and animals, the Fresh Air Fund and the Santa Claus Fund in 1888 to provide excursions and cheer for poor women and children, and the Children’s Aid Society (Canada) in 1891.

John Ross Robertson (1841-1918) was a Canadian newspaper publisher, politician, and philanthropist. He was elected to the Canadian House of Commons for the electoral district of Toronto East in the 1896 federal election defeating the incumbent. The world of sports was also a focus for Robertson’s public-spiritedness. A fervent advocate of amateur sport, he served as president of the Ontario Hockey Association from 1899 to 1905, which was a critical time period in the history of the sport. His battle to protect hockey from the influence of professionalism caused him to be called the “father of Amateur Hockey in Ontario.”

Cassie L. Chadwick (1857-1907) was the most well-known pseudonym used by Canadian con artist Elizabeth Bigley, who defrauded several American banks out of millions of dollars during the late 1800s and early 1900s by claiming to be an illegitimate daughter and heiress of the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Newspaper accounts of the time described her as one of the greatest con artists in American history. She pulled off the heist in the Gilded Age of American history, during which time women were not allowed to vote or get loans from the banks, leading some historians to refer to her bank heist as one of the greatest in American history.

Margaret Haile was a Canadian socialist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a teacher and journalist by profession. She was active in the socialist movements in both Canada and the United States. Frederic Heath’s “Socialism in America,” published in January 1900 in the Social Democracy Red Book, lists her, along with Corinne Stubbs Brown and Eugene V. Debs, among “One Hundred Well-known Social Democrats”.

Clara Brett Martin (1874-1923), born to Abram and Elizabeth Martin, a well-to-do Anglican-Irish family, opened the way for women to become lawyers in Canada by being the first in the British Empire in 1897. In 1888, Martin was accepted to Trinity College in Toronto. And in 1890, Martin graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics at the age of sixteen, which was almost unheard of because of the masculinity associated with that field. In 1891, Martin submitted a petition to the Law Society of Upper Canada to permit her to become a student member, a prerequisite to articling as a clerk, attending lectures and sitting the exams required to receive a certificate of fitness to practice as a solicitor. Her petition was rejected by the Law Society after contentious debate, with the Special Committee reviewing the petition interpreting the statute which incorporated the Law Society as permitting only men to be admitted to the practice of law. W.D. Balfour sponsored a bill that provided that the word “person” in the Law Society’s statute should be interpreted to include females as well as males. Martin’s cause was also supported by prominent women of the day including Emily Stowe and Lady Aberdeen. With the support of the Premier, Oliver Mowat, legislation was passed on April 13, 1892, and permitted the admission of women as solicitors.

(Quotations from Wikipedia and Murdoch Mysteries Fandom)