Van Gogh’s Window:
The window at the upper right opened from Vincent Van Gogh’s room. From this window Van Gogh contemplated the garden of Asile St. Paul de Mausole, the asylum near St. Remy where he stayed for 12 months beginning in May 1889. He looked out over olive groves, apricot and almond trees, a wheat field and the Apilles mountains. In the evening, shadows lay over the garden.
Van Gogh was encouraged by the calmness and understanding of the medical staff at Asile St. Paul de Mausole. Here he painted Starry Night and other legendary works. He left on May 16, 1890, when the apricot trees were blooming and the wheat field was green. He killed himself 71 days later.
Care for patients with mental illness continues to this day at Asile St. Paul de Mausole. Visitors to the asylum may be curious about a sign posted at the entry gate, however: “Any exit will be final. Merci.”
Van Gogh’s Window:
A Hymn Without Words
Why do small churches attract us? Why is the image of a chapel so poignant in an era of burgeoning mega-churches?
This modest church may suggest an answer. Resting beside Highway 17 in Jacksonboro, South Carolina, Wesley UM Church sits empty for most of the week. The pastor serves a rural community with pews for a few dozen worshipers. A prayer band meets on Tuesdays. Nearby a billboard advertises No-fault Divorce. A small road disappears into the Low Country woods.
Churches like Wesley UM were bulwarks against segregation and discrimination across the South for over 100 years. They were witness to the value of human lives — lives that Jim Crow tried to throw away.
Wesley UM Church was also witness to a fundamental quality of belief: quietly being present. It was not necessary to use marble and gilded cornices to make this a place of worship. A door, two windows, and a modest steeple made up the face of the church. Any more would have been superfluous. It was, in the words of Maya Angelou, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven."
Splendor in the Grass
It’s easy to miss things along the roadside when you’re going 70 mph. Little plants with yellow flowers, for example. Such a plant is Bitterweed (Helenium amarum), which normally grows in meadows but has adapted to growing on roadsides.
In a hard world, this little plant will flower where others wither. Like many invasive species, Bitterweed grabs hold in a landscape spoiled by man. It’s a survivor with no time for grief, borne by the wind to flower in places where you’d least expect it.
Walt Whitman had plants like Bitterweed in mind when he wrote of commonplace beauty in Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little,” he said. “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”
Darkness and Hope
Tonight the newspaper was full of world crises. Between global warming and war, children at the border and terrorism, we seemed to be on the edge of oblivion. But then I read this headline in the Washington Post: “New cricket discovered in long-neglected amber collection.” The story was about a cricket that flourished 20 million years ago.
I stepped outside.
Overhead the sky was a dark ceiling. Lightning bugs fired up and bats flashed by in the nightshade of trees. The visible world had given way to the sound of a thousand crickets, the same species whose ancestors sang so long ago.
“Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in 1580.
It’s not that listening to a 20-million-year-old cricket-song at night makes crises in the news inconsequential. It’s just that there’s nothing in the news than can equal the wonder of the eternal song of a creature no bigger than your thumb.
Boardwalk in the City
Chicago’s elevated train, known as The Loop, was completed in 1895 to transport “the lunch pail crowd and passengers resembling gentlemen,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago was the churning engine of the Industrial Revolution in 1895, fueled by steel mills, stockyards, grain elevators, and railroads. Trains connected the skyscrapers on Lake Michigan to residential suburbs carved out of the prairie. Chicago was the first modern city.
Today, The Loop is a rusty remnant of those furious times. Now there are more high heels than lunch pails on its elevated platforms, which are made of unpainted wood and scuffed with the marks of millions of shoes. Carl Sandburg wrote:
"I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.”
At 9 p.m. fog and dirt descend upon the elevated train platform at State and Lake. Lights burn in the office buildings nearby as cleaners work through the night.
Click here for Carl Sandburg’s poem
When Luis Barragan (1902-1988) left Mexico in 1931 to study architecture in Paris, he left behind the chickens and paddock fences of the hacienda where he grew up. In Paris he absorbed the tumultuous newness of modern art and architecture. Here, Le Corbusier and German modernists were his teachers. Four years later he returned to Mexico, determined to implement the new architecture he’d discovered in Europe.
Like many returning expatriate artists of his time, Barragan was expected to choose between being a modernist or a traditionalist. Instead, he chose both.
For the next 35 years he created buildings unmistakably fresh with clean lines and planar surfaces saturated with color. Yet their modesty and simple finishes recalled indigenous Mexican houses. At the entrance to Las Arboledas, for example, Barragan reinterpreted a utilitarian aqueduct and watering troughs to create a modern sculpture. He wove magenta walls and water to form a quiet prelude to this equestrian community. “Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake,” he said.
Bricks and Civil RIghts in Atlanta
A canopy of 100-year-old oak trees shades Myrtle Street in Midtown Atlanta from the broiling summer sun. To many people, the genteel mansions of Myrtle Street suggest a romantic story of the old South. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind in a house nearby. But for others, these houses were on the frontline of change–change wrought by streetcars, black artisans, and the civil rights movement.
Midtown was developed after the Civil War and soon became a streetcar suburb. White men rode downtown to work. Black women rode in the back of the streetcar to Midtown, where they changed diapers and served iced tea for generations of white Atlantans.
Black artisans laid the brick, plastered the walls, and painted the columns of Midtown. After the Civil War, craftsmanship gave artisans of color economic independence that often led to civic leadership. As the daughter of an Atlanta bricklayer Mary Beale said in 1920, “My daddy was not afraid of any white man that walked.” This fearlessness would be invaluable in confronting racism.
The deep porches, dusky colors, and shady streets of Midtown Atlanta are often highlighted in lifestyle magazines, such as Southern Living. Their social history is left in shadow.
An excellent book on the subject is Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 by Catherine Bishir.
Thinking large, building small
In a world that rewards size, Seattle architect Tom Kundig likes to build small. He designs modest houses to be made of steel plate as thick as your finger and concrete you could sharpen a knife on. The physical immediacy of his buildings is like biting into a lemon.
Kundig designed the entire wall of this Idaho vacation house to pivot and open to the sky. Its hand-powered gizmo is so efficient the owner’s eight-year-old daughter can use it to lift the two-ton wall. A gesture like this would go unnoticed in an airplane hangar. In a small house, it is sensational.
There is a history of small buildings that have an influence greater than their size: for example, Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas by Fay Jones, the Magney House in Australia by Glenn Murcutt, and the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps, France, by Le Corbusier. Each has inspired architects to rethink building.
Building small doesn’t guarantee great architecture, but it doesn’t prevent it, either.
Hale County, Alabama, is the poorest county in one of the poorest states in America. For 20 years architecture students from Auburn University have come here to build. The Rural Studio, founded by Sambo Mockbee (1944-2001), draws them to Hale County, where they build small houses, boys and girls clubs, softball fields, and a civil rights museum for people who often can’t afford running water. They are what Mockbee called “citizen architects,” crafting with their bare hands what many thought impossible: hope in a broken place.
In Newbern, Alabama, the Rural Studio built the town hall and volunteer fire station to form a town green. On a recent spring day, the American flag outside the firehouse trembled as logging trucks rolled past. Across the street students drew up their next projects in an unheated warehouse.
Mockbee and his successor, Andrew Freear, didn’t come to Newbern to be do-gooders. They came to create good buildings. And perhaps the greatest products of the Rural Studio are not its buildings but the 600 young architects who have lived and worked here, learning to serve others, to build simply, and to overcome fear. Why? Because the world has many broken places.
Thunderstorm over New York
On a clear day, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan sparkle in the sunlight and the East River is as blue as the sky.
But during a morning thunderstorm in June Manhattan appears very different. The sky hangs over the city like a blood clot, the new World Trade Center disappears into a cloud, and the East River is the color of lead. Instead of sparkling, its towers have the hue of tarnished pots.
One of the remarkable things about New York used to be how easy it was to ignore the weather. No more. In November 2012, the city’s subways filled with seawater during Hurricane Sandy and lower Manhattan was powerless for a week. Not since 9/11 has New York seemed so vulnerable.
Yet in other parts of the country people accept the violent power of nature as normal. Residents in Colorado shrug when homes are lost to wildfires, San Franciscans cross brace their buildings against earthquakes, and in Oklahoma people respond to tornados with courage and resolve.
Perhaps New Yorkers will face sea level rise with equal determination because, like others, they choose to live here for what they love, not what they fear.