Thursday, January 28, 2016

Le Corbusier on On Nut Road

A new city is being built atop the old. It erupts from the old city at odd points, on streets near busy metro stops, along the radial highways that cross the canals, seemingly ignorant of all previous geographies.

I find myself, one night, on a bridge over a canal in On Nut, where, not long ago, the traffic and the concrete gave way to the rice paddies and orchards. All around are the sounds and sights of construction, of 2x4s being nailed into place, of fresh caterpillar tracks in the red clay soil, of cascades of sparks coming off of welding torches on steel armatures, of fluorescent lights left on in unpainted hallways, illuminating gray drywall and plastic sawhorses.

Signs are going up. Condos for sale, plus a “community mall”-- a ubiquitous Bangkok feature, a self-conscious imitation of Southern California planning with all the spas and modern Japanese restaurants one would expect. Artists' renderings show manicured hedges, smartly dressed diners, joggers somehow blithely ignorant of the fanged Thai sun.

And yet cross the road, and find yourself in a fully unreconstructed city, a hodgepodge of spontaneous construction-- market sellers of grilled pork skewers and greenish oranges, shophouses occupied by dental clinics and hairdressers, broken concrete, stray dogs, old wooden houses starting to tilt alongside an ancient canal, A supermarket with stalls selling cheap clothes, knockoff jewelry, herbal soaps, butchered squid splayed out across rapidly melting ice.

In 1922, Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect who had the gall to turn himself into a pseudonymous brand decades before Cher, planned out his Ville Contemporaine, a planned city of 3,000,000 souls that was designed to reflect his own authoritarian vision for what a city should be. Preaching the gospel of architectural determinism, he saw the perfection of man in the perfection of architecture-- which, fortunately, was a task Le Corbusier felt he'd more or less accomplished in the form of “towers in the park.”


But unlike a great many of his colleagues, Le Corbusier was able to merrily shoehorn his vision into multiple political ideologies. A handmaiden of wealthy European industrialists, he designed their country estates and lobbied them to build worker housing along his lines, but who also spent a few years as the favored architect of the USSR, and who willingly carried out the architectural vision of the collaborationist government in France in World War II, who afterwards lent his vision to the construction of vaguely democratic-socialist megaprojects in an idealistic, newly independent India.

After cycling through industrial capitalism, communism, fascism, and social democracy, the tower in the park can thus take the form of post-industrial capitalism, as it did in the years following World War II, became emblematic of large-scale corporate architecture, both in high-density housing complexes and in suburban office parks.

And so On Nut is increasingly filled with the towers, as assets for the city's investing classes, leased out to more housing-transient populations-- young professionals, university students from wealthy families, expatriates looking for an environment that could just as easily fit into Dallas or Sydney. As the new city grows in size and influence, one wonders what will happen to the old. Will it be replaced, or will it grow in size accordingly, as a belt of poverty supplying the necessary labor to feed the tastes of those in the towers? And how much of it will be preserved as a nostalgic relic, an easily marketable counterpoint in a vertical city? After all, even Le Corbusier spent his final years in a rustic cabin by the sea.

The new Bangkok seems to grow and grow without reason, and one wonders where all the capital comes from. Ads appear for more and more condos, in further and further neighborhoods, with invitations to buy units off of the plan before ground is broken. The city takes on the character of a mirage, and it seems as if the act of construction takes primacy over the place itself. I'm reminded, at last, on that bridge over the canal, of Italo Calvino's Thekla, from Invisible Cities.
“Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask 'Why is Thekla's construction taking such a long time?' the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer 'So that its destruction cannot begin.' And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, 'Not only the city.'”

Monday, December 28, 2015

Lobster Thermidor

It seems so odd and arbitrary that we only occasionally think about the history of the things around us, and only at the things that we deem "historical" in nature. A 19th Century church, an old family photo, these are things where their oldness is an essential feature in the collective imagination, and so we always consider their histories. Or we see something new that has a specifically antiquated design, or something in which we know the history of why it was built that way, or the intent of its inventor or designer, and we can tell ourselves the story of how this thing that we see came to be in the world. We might let the shape of our electrical plugs, the bright red of a Solo cup, go without comment that day. But sometimes the narrative emerges, uncoils, and becomes visible. And so it was recently, when the narrative came to me in the form of a lobster.

The story of how lobster became gentrified is one of the more popular pieces of kitschy American food lore, especially in the wake of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. What was once considered an inedible pest became a cheap protein and a standard meal in the colonial prison system before its eventual, full rehabilitation as a luxury food. Or perhaps you've heard about the six-foot lobsters that reportedly roamed the shores of Manhattan Island in the Colonial Era, like animal symbols of the hyperabundance of a supposedly virgin continent.

 

And when the lobster came to me, that crossed my mind. But what was far more interesting was the way in which it was served. The beast came with its claws already cracked, its insides splayed open and blended into a rich, creamy filling, lashings of egg yolk crystallized along the sides of the shell.

 

The name smacks of antiquity. The dish was named at Maison Maire in late 19th Century Paris in honor of a play, Thermidor, by Victorien Sardou, a titan in his time, but likewise now mostly forgotten. The play opened in 1891-- a time, known in popular memory, as the Paris of La Belle Époque, of Monet water lilies and boulevard flâneurs, but which was also a time of near-constant military intrigues, the Dreyfus Affair, the beginning of France's colonial incursions, and the far-right populism of General Georges Boulanger's revanchist political campaign, before Boulanger's suicide on the grave of his mistress several months after the opening of Thermidor. The play is the story of the Thermidorian Reaction, the 1794 French counter-revolution that lead to the execution of Maximilien Robespierre and the bloody purge of leftists in 1795, a subject so volatile that the government of Sadi Carnot banned the production at all state theaters... until Carnot's own assassination shortly afterwards, in 1894.

 

And the lobster thermidor has become something of a rarity. Once a luxury staple, it has faded into obscurity, along with other out-of-fashion dishes codified by Auguste Escoffier. Roux-thickened soups, sauces heavy with crayfish butter and meat glaze, breaded chunks of beef and veal, compound salads drowning under gelatin or mayonnaise, and grotesque, floral garnishes of puff pastry and vegetables have been relegated. We see their photos lurking in old cookbooks, with shimmery surfaces in oversaturated colors.

 

And so what I have on my plate is not just a dish, but a high-modernist relic-- a dish borne of the capital and excess and tumult of the 19th Century, enshrined in the ideology and iconography of the 20th, before being junked in favor of new tastes. A culinary Cadillac.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunset, Saphan Khwai

Get off the metro at Saphan Khwai at sunset. Walk southwards, towards Pradiphat Road. Lunch shops are selling off the remainder of their curries for the day, signs for windowless “cinemas” down side alleys. New condos loom over the rows of empty shophouses quietly crumble in the humidity, down sois that until recently, terminated at the dilapidated remains of the once glorious New York Theater, a block of high modernism reduced to one of the neighborhood porn theaters before its eventual demolition. And off to the left, the ever-glowing pink neon sleaze of the Sutthisan Road go-go bars.


 
I'd walked this route countless times to visit my friends who live in this area. But it was only recently that I began to pay notice to the grim, lumbering building on the Northwest corner of the Saphan Khwai intersection.

From ground level, it mostly seems to be a row of shops like any other-- food places, wholesalers of cloth, jewelers, all of the normal elements of most Bangkok neighborhoods-- but look a bit closer.

Up above, there are a few more floors than one would expect, and doors to nowhere jut out from masonry walls. A security guard waves cars in and out of an underground parking garage. Looking through to the back of the shops, a large, empty space can be seen, the walls painted institutional green, with a large empty tile floor in the middle. And above a food center, one sees the railings of overhanging floors, the interior space hidden behind hung white sheets.

A little research, and I finally found a photo of this, the Sisupharat Arcade Building, as it was under construction in 1979, right at the start of the Thai economic miracle.


And as it stands today, after its last iteration as the Saphan Khwai Branch of the Merry Kings Department Store, another victim of the 1997 Financial Crisis.


The hivemind of the Internet has become immensely fond of dead malls, those malls that either are abandoned, or, more likely, seriously under-occupied, remnants of a consumer base that has since moved on. It's as if, in the continuing wake of the big collapse in 2007, there's something cathartic about seeing a material manifestation of the total obviation of the suburban, American dream.

Bangkok has contributed to it in the form of the New World Mall, the structure near Khaosan Road that became famous for having partially filled with water, and becoming home to schools of carp.


Thailand's 1997, America's 2007. At the bottom of the business cycle, inefficiencies will inevitably pool. Destruction, sans renewal, emerges as an inevitable characteristic of capitalism. And this is why there is something so compelling about those sites that remind us of this sobering fact. We live among constant billboard, fantasy consumer products projected at us from every angle. Which is why, on warm nights in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, it might not be a bad idea to look at the broken concrete that lurks behind.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Arabesque

They come at me at points in the day, when I'm least aware. When I'm lying in bed at night, or during a slow afternoon at the office. Sinuous forms, peacock feathers and nudibranchs, dancing around the corners of my vision before they dissipate in the murk, or swim off into the unknown territories beyond my eyelids.

All of them could loosely be termed “arabesques,” a loosely used term, of course, but something that also implies complexity, interwovenness, and transcendence.

We get the term from the intricate patterns of Middle Eastern decorative work, mosque tiles filled with lines wrapped around one another in eternal horror vacui. In the cosmology of the Islamic Golden Age, it was the purest form of representation. The curvilinear patterns reflected the warp and woof of the Arabic script, and by extension, the Qu'ran, shape and language bound together in an eternal logos.


And in Southeast Asia, it manifests itself in the unalom, the spiral pattern that decorates the edges of sak yant tattoos and mandalas, and which I see in white paint on the roofs of Bangkok taxis, interlaced with the ancient Khmer script.


The forms exist in nature. Not only in the vines and tendrils that inspired so much of the original Middle Eastern arabesques, but also in the invisible forces that contour the world around us.

I see them in the sea creatures that seem to toe the line between plant and animals, floating on waves, or fixed to the ocean floor, like creaturely plants. Lacking vertebrae, constrained as they are by water pressure and turbulent flow, the crinoids and corals and coelenterates, bryozoans and holothurians seem to us earthbound creatures to be as unfamiliar as aliens. And in his masterwork Kunstformen der Natur, Ernst Hackel painted and displayed them to almost look abstract in their unfamiliarity, patterns that could readily decorate a Turkish doorway.


You see the arabesque form inscribed into the rock in the gravitational flow of water, in the deltas that frame the swampy ground at the mouths of rivers, and in dry regions, deserts and Alpine highlands, the ghosts of streams form great alluvial fans.


And you see it in the Lichtenberg figures, the delicate, dendritic tracings that demonstrate the flow of energy through insulating matter. They appear in the clay of lightning-struck soil, and on the skin of lightning strike victims.


In the late 1950s, Gaston Bachelard turned his attentions to these sorts of descriptions. Unsatisfied with descriptions of the world around him in terms of origins and causes, he turned to raw, lived experience, how the thing in the world reverberates with him, the observer. He believed his subjective experience to be indicative of universals.

I don't ascribe any universality to the arabesques I see. A hardline phenomenologist might say that they constitute some kind of deep-seated umwelt. But I think that, in reality, as with all perceptive phenomena of this sort, they are simply the constellation I perceive among many stars, seen through my own very specific telescope.

And yet it's a powerful enough connection that it shapes my perception for them. Lying in my bed, they seem to move around me, velvet-black and shimmering gold. When I wake up in the morning, they suddenly scatter as my eyes open. They lie there in wait, hiding themselves in the shadowiest recesses.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Fly by Night

It started in my earliest memories, with walks around the town I grew up in. On humid summer nights, or after December snowfalls, I'd walk the 15 minutes down to the windswept Main Street, a line of brick storefronts anchored at one end by the power plant that forever belched out white steam. Each dimly lit shop window held a certain mystery. Cheap leatherette couches and diabetic footwear for the elderly Middle Westerners. Model train and car displays-- my favorite as a boy, a little scene of the Iowa Highway Patrol pulling over the General Lee, Bo and Daisy Duke with their hands on the asphalt. Dusty posters advertising all-inclusive resort packages on a sun-drenched islands, a faraway and carefree wonderland of graceful palm trees and velvet-soft surf.
And just as compellingly there were what seemed to be the outer fringes of the adult world. The dingy biker bars with front doors reeking of stale beer, the clack of a pool balls, Appetite for Destruction playing from a jukebox, the loud noises of house parties with people in the half-light out by a keg on chilly autumn evenings, blowing exhalations of smoke out across garage lights. One bar had an always-shut black door... a topless place, a strip club, never was sure what it was, but there were a million rumors about it in the 5th grade. And at the end of the street, there was the tattoo parlor at the end of the street with a hand-written sign reading “We have the right to refuse service to assholes,” and I thought... my god... you're allowed to use words like that on signs!

When I saw like the cowboy-looking dudes I saw drinking coffee at all-night diners, their inner thoughts seemed to synchronize with the wail of the Chicago Northwestern freight trains that barreled through town. And in my room, I would look at Edward Hopper figures, and knew that the term “Nighthawks” captured something I wanted to be a part of.


The small child grew into the awkward adolescent, and his walks became longer. He knew more of the realities that he'd seen in neon colors when he was younger. The clerk behind the gas station counter no longer seemed knowing, but like a dropout with a stringy goatee and a couple prison tats. The old man waiting for the train to pass was no longer an old sage, but a burned out case, reliant on a dwindling pension, a couple illegitimate children in another town he barely remembers the name of. And in retrospect, I try to think how I must have looked, a hulking, tall, fat, solitary teenager, walking rapidly down late-night alleys, seemingly disoriented from the world, lost in the Radiohead CD I was listening to, someone best avoided.

Now, it would seem that the streets of a city at night have lost all mystery. I can go into the bars whenever I damn well please, can stay out until sunrise. In other words, to fully engage with the adult world.

But a fragment of the mystery remains. All it takes is the mosquito-swarmed light of a noodle shop, or a second-floor room not entirely hidden by drapes, to remind me of the image of a city by night, that photonegative image that haunts my early memories.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Violence After Midnight

The two of us are lying in bed. Ms. S. wakes up, and hears me mumbling.

-She won't expect a thing, I whisper.

Still lying down, I slowly reach my hand across. My fingers run across over her face, and then I jump up, and press my hands down, covering her mouth and nose. She struggles for a moment, and then throws me off.

*

As she tells me this in the morning, I don't know what to think. Did this really happen? How could it have?

My memories of the night had been staying in, watching a movie, cooking dinner, splitting a bottle of wine, going to bed fairly early, and getting a good night's sleep. Dreamless, even.

I'd of course heard countless stories about people doing all sorts of things while sleepwalking. And yet I'd never had any experience of it. Roommates, girlfriends... none of them have ever said I'd done similar things. I've always been a fairly light sleeper, and I toss and turn somewhat, but never anything even remotely close to this act.

To even call it an “act” has the horrifying implication that it had a motive, that it had intention. I know I can't blame myself for what I've done in my sleep. But it's still difficult to admit that I'd been violent in my sleep, especially as someone who doesn't really have violent tendencies. And I know that if I do admit it, while I won't become a pariah, I'll become vaguely suspect in some way. It is tantamount to making visible the albatross around my neck.

And regardless of any question of motivation, it makes the last few moments before falling asleep a bit more tense, a bit more nervous.

The fear of sleep is something pretty innate, and it's few people who haven't experienced it to some degree. Because when you are lying there in the darkness, you are prone, and whether the fear is that of monsters under the bed when you're five years old or is that of the killers and rapists outside when you're 35 years old, we fear what crawls around in the dark.

But what's also frightening is the fear not of your defenselessness when you're sleeping, but of you could do when sleeping. The sleepwalker is an active participant in our world, but their motives are firmly embedded in the hazy logic of the dreaming world. Abiding by the logic of some hidden place within consciousness, the somnambulist lives on both sides of that line, and is rendered blameless because-- like amnesiacs or the insane-- he or she has become separated from common human reality.

So whatever parasitic force within me took over that night, I hope, that by putting it out in the open instead of burying it in shame and denial, I can confront it as such. In calling it what it is, the albatross can fall off and into the sea.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

L'Avventura

I know I belong to the binge-watch era. Most people I know go through downloaded TV series, popular book series, whatever, in a matter of weeks if not days if possible. And yet I've always been the opposite, wanting to linger over things for as long as I can, sometimes to the point of waiting for years to finish movie trilogies.

And thus it was that I finally got around to watching Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse, the final film in his trilogy of “modern life” movies, one of the landmarks of world cinema, one name-checked by countless respected critics and filmmakers.

I'd been putting it off for the better part of a decade. When I was 19 or 20, I watched L'Avventura, the first film in the trilogy as part of my drive to become a serious film buff, the sort of guy who wouldn't just namecheck a movie, but prefix it with the name of the director... “Lynch's Blue Velvet,” you get the idea.

Like a lot of teenage boys with intellectual pretenses, when I first started to consider movies as art, I was drawn to the films of Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, movies that in addition to being generally quite well-made, had the additional benefit of having enough moment of badass and detached cool for a 16 year old boy to really dig. Escapist fantasies, really. All I really wanted to do was do the twist with Uma Thurman, or to turn a basement fight club into an anarchist cell.

And from there I moved onward, in fits and starts, through the films of Tarkovsky, Herzog, Cassavetes, Kurosawa, until, after being delighted by Antonioni's far more popular Blowup, I got around to his early landmark L'Avventura. Here were the bright young things of postwar Italy on a fateful pleasure boat journey where one of their number disappeared. Panic, followed by a frantic search, and then everyone just... kind of forgot. Their friend's disappearance simply became a buzzkill, a distraction from their lives of weekends in Mediterranean resort towns, elegant aperitifs, and chain-smoked Gitanes. This was it, I thought. Ironic distance. Ironic title. The blasted landscape of a desert island off of Sicily, the garish horror of the unthinking rush into the modern.


The '60s had begun, and Italian cinema was changing. The neorealists-- wartime poverty, workers trying their best to make ends meet, bread lines and desperate situations-- were on their way out. Italian neorealists like Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti transitioned into lush period films, Pier Paolo Pasolini started the decade with the mean streets of Rome in Accattone and endied his career 15 years later with fascist mountaintop orgies in Salò, Fellini announced his new sensibilities with a helicopter-borne Jesus carried over Rome, and Antonioni began his long journey into vermouth-flavored ennui.

And yet, as I continued to explore the European art cinema of the '60s, somewhere along the line, it ceased to impress me. When I watched the second film in Antonioni's trilogy a couple years later, I was singularly unimpressed. In fact, I can barely remember the thing. It blends into countless other films I'd seen around that time, by Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, and their fellow travelers, all using the same actors, Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Monica Vitti... how many expressionless middle-aged men entombed in their book-lined studies and painfully tasteful high-modern pieds-à-terre cold-shouldering their neurasthenic, be-Prada'd wives, the whole nasty scene pinned down by self-conscious reflections of Freudian and Lacanian devices.

Antonioni reached his low with his voyage to America in 1970, making the mind-numbing hippie fantasia Zabriskie Point, which tries to draw the, in retrospect, beyond-laughable connection between property crime, revolutionary Maoist politics, and human orgasm as equally liberatory urges in a late-capitalist society, all culminating in an en-masse fuck in the California desert.

Watching L'Eclisse saddened me. All these years after being stunned by it, I have to admit that L'Avventura is truly daring, is truly a wonder, and his Blowup is just as good.

And it's not like what Hollywood has on offer most of the time is any better. If I try to go to the latest CGI spectacle, I come out deeply glum, feeling that I didn't just watch a movie, I just watched a heavily marketed magic trick, seemingly designed by a cynical production team with a mission to condescend to its audience's basest instincts.

After a year or two of obsessive film watching, I sort of trailed off. I went through long phases, of whole months even, without watching a single movie. But that period had transformed the way I saw movies, the way I saw art more generally, and the way I saw the world. You so often learn more from what you don't like than what you do.