Saturday, July 21, 2007

Monona Terrace -- let them eat cake

Let Them Eat Cake 1They could not possibly have picked a better night for the 10th anniversary celebration for the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center. Cool breezes swept in from Lake Monona, where a flotilla of boats gathered to position themselves for ringside seats at the fireworks display later on, and the sky was awash in delicate shades of faded pastel. The rooftop was jammed, and the whole city seemed to be there.

In the background, after a long evening of music by other local groups, Maestro Andrew Sewell conducted the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's anniversary concert, which included the late David Crosby's short symphony, "Monona Terrace." The concert also included the 4th Movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, part of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, and with the fireworks that concluded the festivities as night fell, Borodin's Polotsvian Dances.

People were having a great time, and you would probably have to be a bit of a cynic like yours truly to see subtle indications of the gentrification of downtown Madison also portrayed by LFH's Condos after Dark series. There was free cake for all, but not all availed themselves of it. Some preferred to chat with their friends behind the rope line at the reserved tables for the corporate sponsors, almost like high rise condo residents enjoying a lovely evening at home, watching the sunset over the lake.

One of my commenters on the photo of Monona Terrace I put on Flickr said that the facility is not really a Frank Loyd Wright building. He noted some called it "the mistake on the lake," and that FLW must be rolling over in his grave. He's right about that. FLW hated it when clients presumed to mess with his designs, so imagine what he would have thought about his successors at Taliesin Associates tampering with his plans for Monona Terrace.

Bumping up the roof line to make room for an exhibit hall distorted everything -- and cut off the view of the lake for pedestrians on the Square. It destroyed FLW's fundamental vision of the graceful structure bridging and connecting the Capitol Square with the lake. (Although, if Wright would have disliked today's building, he would probably have been delighted with the concert -- as the lovely T reminded me, he used to pipe classical music out to the fields at Taliesin, where his apprentices labored as farmhands as part of the Taliesin ideal of self-sufficiency.)

In fact, I loathed the idea when I first heard they were finally going to build the Monona Terrace, back when the hype tended to pass it off as a building actually designed by FLW, rather than "inspired" by FLW, which is more accurate. I thought they should have let the original idea, which Madison spurned when Wright presented it multiple times, die a natural death -- and get somebody like Frank Gehry to create a living design.

But I think I was wrong. The Monona Terrace has grown on me as a public space. By Madison standards, it passes as interesting architecture, even if it isn't authentic FLW. It functions well as a downtown space -- and along with the Memorial Union on the other lake, is the only major public building we've built along our beautiful lakes in a century and a half. And, of course, a lot of people really, really love it. And that counts for a lot, at a time when most of our architecture is too bland to inspire either love or hate.

You have to say, for a city Madison's size and history, and with its superb physical location, most of our recent architecture is surprisingly humdrum. (One reason I've mellowed about Monona Terrace is that the Overture Center, with all its travertine pretensions, is absolutely mediocre in comparison -- and not nearly as welcoming to the public.)

As for us, T and I listened to the first part of the concert on the rooftop and then decamped to an outdoor table on the patio of the nearby Paisan's. The large loudspeakers installed for the event and aimed at Law Park gave ample coverage at our location. Every note was crystal clear. Listening to the 5th Symphony while watching the lights of the boats bob and weave on the darkened lake like fireflies was a rare experience. And the superbly choreographed fireworks were fantastic -- and right in our face. A truly memorable night.

Happening upon the finish line of the 28th annual Paddle & Portage canoe race

We were riding our bikes across the John Nolen causeway toward Olin Park when we first sensed them off to our left. A line of canoes stretched all the way across Lake Monona, the occupants of each paddling furiously, like Voyageurs straining to make landfall before a storm. It was the 28th annual DMI Paddle & Portage canoe race. By the time we got to Olin, the racers were crashing ashore like waves, jumping out, lifting their canoes one last time and sprinting past the finish line time clock a few yeards away. Made me tired just to watch them. (Click on photo to enlarge. Check out the contestant at the far right.)

Pottermania at the Madison Borders

We stopped at the University Avenue Walgreens about 11:00 to pick something up in the pharamacy, and it was a madhouse. The entire area was crawling with aliens from another universe. We were drawn inexorably by the flow of the crowd, some of whom had to park blocks away, into Borders. It seems just yesterday that many had read their first Harry potter book, and now some of them were already college students. It was happening all over the country. (Click on photo to enlarge and read about why it looks the way it does.)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Maxwell Street Days: I scored my usual $5.00 polo shirts at Lands' End, and of course a few photos

Yes, I brought my own art supplies, and the arrow is pointing at them -- my previously described pseudo digital pinhole camera gear.

The Capitol makes a benign background for State Street, which for one long weekend a year becomes the Capital of Bargain Hunting Crazed Consumerism during Maxwell Street Days, when all the merchants on State Street are reincarnated as .vendors hawking their wares on the street. Usually it' takes place on some of the hottest days of the year, but the weather gods smiled on the event this morning. It was cool and sunny and gorgeous.

The hatless looked at hats, preparing for the return of the real Madison summer. (I never wear hats, but over the years I've assembled quite a collection -- regularly donated to Goodwill -- of hats bought on sudden impulse at Maxwell Street Days.)

Moms brought their kids. A stroller is a good idea and also helps with the packages. In the opening hours, there was plenty of room, but as the crowds build over the course of the day, navigation will become more of a challenge.

There was a lot for thoughtful shoppers to think about. Many recalled Maxwell Sttreet Days of the past, when, blinded by the heat, they accumulated packages all the way down State Street -- and then wondered, upon opening the bags at home, why they had bought most of the things. While there's a lot to be said for striking quickly before all the good stuff is gone, there's also something to be said for taking a moment to think about your purchases. Have fun!

Today marks 175th anniversary of Black Hawk's isthmus escape. And Monona Terrace's 10th.

Double Lake Monona Anniversary: Monona Terrace
Major festivities and fireworks are scheduled for tonight atop the Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center, as the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lakefront facility commemorates its opening 10 years ago. The celebration has been dubbed "Promises Kept."
The event is a free community celebration attracting citizens of the greater Madison area and will include music from Madison favorites: Mama Digdown's Brass Band, MadiSalsa, Ben and Leo Sidran Trio, and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. There will be family activities, ethnic food vendors, fireworks, and more! This event also celebrates the support of those individuals, businesses, and organizations that have played an essential role in making Monona Terrace a Madison landmark and true success story.
The phrase "Promises Kept" has a certain historical irony when you consider that, exactly 175 years ago today, the great Sauk leader Black Hawk led his band of some 1,000 warriors, women and children past the site where Monona Terrace now stands. As this marker in Olbrich Park notes, they were taking the "Third Lake Passage," an old Indian trail along Lake Monona. They were fleeing federal troops and militias who who had been pursuing them since April, after Black Hawk's quest for justice in the face of broken promises went dreadfully wrong. Less than two weeks after passing through what would one day be known as the Madison isthmus, most of his followers were massacred at the Bad Axe River near the Mississippi.

This history is part of an earlier era in a new nation. Wisconsin had not yet even achieved territorial status (1836), let along statehood (1848). Only six years before Black Hawk and his people passed through the isthmus, the two old adversaries and former presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, had died within hours of each other on the 50th birthday of the country, July 4, 1826. (Black Hawk himself was in his mid-sixties when he led his people through the Third Lake Passage, having been born almost a decade before the Revolutionary War, in 1767.)

Dennis McCann wrote eloquently about the Black Hawk War (a misnomer, he points out) a few months ago in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
"It can be argued," said retired state archaeologist Bob Birmingham, who taught our three-session class in Black Hawk history, "that the Black Hawk War is the most important event in Wisconsin history."

It is hard to argue otherwise. The war's bloody outcome and subsequent removal of Indians ended the last native threat to whites who were flooding into southwestern Wisconsin to mine for lead. The resulting settlement led directly to territorial status in 1836 and to statehood in 1848.

Some of the most famous names of that day - and of Wisconsin and American history - took part in the war, from Abraham Lincoln to Jefferson Davis to Zachary Taylor to Henry Dodge and Winfield Scott.

Yet for all of its import, it was not a war as such. It was a chase of Black Hawk's warriors, women and children by militia and regular army over a period of four months that ended at Bad Axe on the Mississippi River with the massacre of fleeing Indians who had tried in vain to surrender.
Times, of course, have changed. The state of Wisconsin offered a belated apology, which was read by then-State Representative David Clarenbach in a 1990 ceremony. But the sense that a great tragedy took place here has never totally gone away. The feeling that we are here on land that was essentially stolen can haunt you when looking at the remaining effigy mounds, built by an earlier people. It's there if you stop near Sauk City at the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, where Black Hawk and his warriors made their last, valiant stand -- holding off the pursuing troops long enough to make one last escape, before the forces arrayed against them finally closed in at the Bad Axe. And on a quiet day in this part of the country, it's hard not to think of Black Hawk when you look up and see a hawk circling high above on the thermals like an ascending spirit.

Sure, I'll probably go watch the fireworks tonight, and the Monona Terrace deserves its celebration. It has become a part of the community and a real asset for downtown Madison. But as I stand there by the side of Lake Monona I'll also be thinking about another time, another people who passed through here, and their heroic but doomed struggle.

7/21 UPDATE: In today's Wisconsin State Journal Anita Clark writes about the commemorative observances today at the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights near Sauk City.
Events beginning at 10 a.m. today will commemorate the battle and its enduring impact on Wisconsin history. A tobacco gift from the Ho-Chunk Nation will be followed by a message from the Sac and Fox nation of Oklahoma, the descendants of Black Hawk's band. Speakers will share tales of treachery and bravery, bloodshed and misery, of the confrontation now called a turning point in what is popularly known as the Black Hawk War.

"I prefer to call it the chase of Black Hawk. We Anglos called it war," said David Gjestson, a retired wildlife biologist who knows every inch of the historic site and every turn of the historic story. An oak savanna in Black Hawk's day, the land is now overgrown with invading black and honey locust trees. They block the view that once extended for miles.
The article includes directions, a schedule, and additional links.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Will the sun set on the Brutalist architecture of UW-Madison's Humanities Building?

The Sun Sets on the Brutalist Architecture of UW-Madison's Humanities Building
Maybe. The University of Wisconsin has announced that it wants to tear down this edifice, long-reviled by Madison campus students and faculty alike, sometime within the next decade.

Maybe not. Some are arguing that the building is such a fine example of mid-century Brutalism that it should be preserved. What they're wrangling about is the George L. Mosse Humanities Building, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, who designed many highly regarded buildings throughout the country and especially in the Midwest, including the more refined Chazen Museum next door. The controversy would probably have amused the late cultural historian George Mosse, for whom the building was named after his death in 1999. [MAP]

It certainly looks brutal enough. With its walls canted away from the street, it looks like nothing so much as a fortress, which is not surprising, given that it was built between 1966 and 1969, during the height of student unrest on one of the nation's most turbulent campuses. The man in the photo seems comfortable enough, but that just goes to show that people will make themselves comfortable almost anywhere.

But that's the thing -- we do make ourselves comfortable almost anywhere, figuratively if not always literally. Our eyes certainly acclimate to things that once seemed shocking, with the result that monstrosities often morph into classics. (As a photographer, I certainly have always found the rough concrete textures and the brutal geometry of the building fascinating. It may be a totally dysfunctional structure, but it fails to function in a visually interesting way.)

In a thoughtful piece on the controversy, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel architecture critic Whitney Gould quotes Arnold Alanen, a professor of landscape architecture at UW-Madison, one of the people in the small but growing retro movement to preserve Humanities.
Alanen admits he would not like to work in the building, but he values it as a testament to its difficult times; as the work of an important modernist (our [Milwaukee] Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is another Weese product); as a piece of the Brutalist complex that includes the Chazen Museum and Vilas Hall.

He has been around long enough to remember how many other now-revered UW buildings were once candidates for the wrecking ball: the Old Red Gym, the University Club, Washburn Observatory, the Dairy Barn. "Sometimes, if you can just mothball these places for awhile," Alanen says, "they can survive."
Susan Lambert Smith of the Wisconsin State Journal also touched on the controversy.
Humanities was featured in a 2006 article in Preservation magazine, titled "Embracing the Brute."

But while campus building czar Al Fish is aware of Weese's achievements, he practices his own version of brutalism when talking about the Humanities Building. "(Weese) has made some mistakes, and we have one of them here on campus," Fish said. How much does Fish hate the Humanities Building? Let us count the ways.

It's a maze and an "energy hog." The concrete has "spauled," meaning it has chipped and cracked from heat and cold. It has leaked since the day it opened. The poor music department is largely underground, where wildly fluctuating humidity and temperatures wreck the instruments. And, said Fish, "Who would build a building with empty space under the sixth floor, so the floor is always cold?" The heating and ventilating systems have never worked right, leading those forced to work in the building to refer to it as "Inhumanities."
Should it stay, or should it go? How about both? I like Arnold Alanen's suggestion: Gut the dysfunctional interior, replace it with a modern interior that works, and preserve and renovate the exterior, which is crumbling in places. Sure, that would cost some money. But so would building new facilities for the departments housed in Humanities. Humanities definitely belongs with its other Brutalist neighbors, the Chazen Museum and Vilas Hall -- which, though they might have their own flaws, don't flaunt them as visibly (or dramatically). It would be a shame to lose Humanities.

And remember, the Old Red Gym was also once considered an antique relic and an eyesore. There were those who called for its demolition. But most people today are glad that never happened.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Riding my blue bike on Madison's Southwest Bike Path while less than optimally trim and thin

Riding the Blue Bike on the Southwest Bike Path
From Gina Kolata's The Bicycling Paradox: Fit Doesn’t Have to Mean Thin:
“When I first got into cycling, I would see cyclists and say, ‘O.K., that’s not what I perceive a cyclist to be,’ ” said Michael Berry, an exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University. Dr. Berry had been a competitive runner, and he thought good cyclists would look like good runners — rail-thin and young.

But, Dr. Berry added, “I quickly learned that when I was riding with someone with a 36-inch waist, I could be looking at the back of their waist when they rode away from me.”

He came to realize, he said, that cycling is a lot more forgiving of body type and age than running. The best cyclists going up hills are those with the best weight-to-strength ratio, which generally means being thin and strong. But heavier cyclists go faster downhill. And being light does not help much on flat roads.
I know just what she means. (I go really fast downhill.)

The Dane County Fair opened Tuesday night. Great subject for pseudo digital pinhole photography.

Twilight Ferris Wheel at the Dane County Fair
The Dane County Fair opened Tuesday night at the Alliant Energy Center, which is on my way home from work. I pulled over and got out the little camera with the pinhole taped over the lens. Turns out that almost anything makes a pretty good subject for a pseudo digital pinhole photo, as long as it has a fairly simple shape without too much detail.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pseudo digital pinhole hack for my camera

Pseudo Digital Pinhole 1
Woo-hoo! My first pseudo digital pinhole photographs, straight from my Minolta Dimage X, with no post processing in Photoshop (yet).

Pseudo Digital Pinhole 2

They're not true pinhole photographs, because there still is a lens in the camera, with the pinhole taped to the camera in front of it. I made the pinhole with a bulletin board stick-pin that I punched through a little cardboard square cut out of a manila file folder. I simply taped this tab over the window in the upper right corner of the good old 2mp Dimage. (This camera has a completely internal lens.) So it's not a true pinhole camera, in which the pinhole itself would be the only lens. It's really more like a vignetter, a diffuser, or even a digital equivalent of a Holga -- but hey, it's a start.

I originally was looking for a piece of aluminum foil, which would be more light-tight, but I couldn't find any. So I cast about for some cardboard instead, being eager to go and try this thing out. I chose the manila folder because I thought it would let in just enough light around the pinhole to give an overall sepia tone to the photos, and that seems to be the case. The little lines are my registration marks that I used to line the pinhole up as best I could with the optical axis of the lens.

Outside, I found that the zoom determined the size of the image circle and the degree of sharpness of the image. At the wide angle setting, the image only filled about a quarter of the height of the frame, while at full 3X telephoto it nearly filled it from top to bottom, with the image getting softer and softer as I zoomed. I experimented with my new toy outdoors for the length of a coffee and break and then came in and uploaded the photos to iPhoto.

I'e always liked the soft, other-worldly look pinhole photographers create. And in particular, I'm inspired by the work of Yannick Vigouroux, whose work I found on Flickr. Check out his beautiful stenope numerique set.

I'm not there yet (again, it's not a true pinhole camera). But it's a start. Sometimes you just need to get out of your chair and go do it.

NOTE: Here are some links, each connecting to more links, if you'd like to pursue pinhole photography further. Until digital cameras came along, pinhole photography was a complex process that involved going into a darkroom or closet to put film inside lightproof boxes that had a covered pinhole at the other end (Quaker Oats boxes were a favorite), experimenting a lot to get the right exposure, trial and error, one shot at a time. has a good overview of the history and practice of this traditional process. Digital SLR photography changed everything. You could take the lens off and mount a pinhole in its place. A favorite technique is to drill a pinhole hole in a body cap and mount it in place of the lens. And, if you want to get adventurous, you can even make a pinhole telephoto, or even a telephoto "zoom," with a body cap and a couple cardboard toilet paper rolls.

NOTE #2: I've set up a Pseudo Digital Pinhole set on Flickr, have added a couple more photos and will add more in the future (if my cardboard pinhole holds out).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Timekeeper, the sculpture that everyone in Madison except me seems to think is a joke

I seem to be the only person in Madison who really likes this 1983 sculpture by American sculptor Robert Curtis, born in 1948. It's in Law Park between John Nolen Drive and Lake Monona (that's the Monona Terrace Convention Center in the background). It's one of the favorite examples that comes up when someone is bashing public art in Madison. This 1992 Capital Times rant by Jacob Stockinger is typical.
Robert Curtis' 1983 ``Time Keeper'' in Law Park - with its rusted steel beams and plastic arch topped with a motif like the letterhead logos of Madison Teachers Inc. - looks like abandoned leftovers from kids playing with Leggo and Erector sets. ``When are they going to finish it?'' asked two different friends.
I beg to disagree. Among other things, I really groove on Timekeeper's playful allusions to such Neolithic "timekeepers" as the monument at Stonehenge -- the observatory of its time that marked the crucial passing of the seasons. To me, the upright rod is suggestive of a sundial. The circular concrete arc suggests the circular shape of other prehistoric monuments (also emphasized by the stone in the center) and recalls the movement of planets around the Zodiac with the passing of the seasons. And above all, Timekeeper is playful. Under its own bright blue bit of stylized, sculpted sky, it seems to invite the viewer to participate in some mysterious, whimsical ritual. Plus, you can sit on it.

One big reason for the negative reaction is, I think, Timekeeper's inaccessible location -- to all but bicyclists, rollerbladers and walkers. To most people, it's a 2-second drive-by on John Nolen Drive -- and this is a work you need to wander in and around to really appreciate. Nor do people have much motivation to take a closer look.

It's hard to find out much about Curtis online, and I suppose that's partly the problem with public reaction to his work -- there's just not a lot of buzz out there. Most of his active career seems to have taken place before everything started to appear online. I did find this brief recent bio blurb from the Indianapolis Art Center, but it's a Google cache html rendition of an MS Word document of unknown provenance, and I'm not sure the link will work on any computer that doesn't have my cookies. Anyhow, this is all it says:
Robert Curtis was born in Susanville, California in 1948. He attended the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona State University, Tempe, and University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He later taught at the School of Architecture, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He currently resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He has exhibited widely through the American Southwest and later, in Wisconsin, including many one-man exhibitions across the country.
And in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture database, I found a brief reference to a 1987 two-piece sculpture called "Gateway" on theUniversity of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. But it's not a lot to go on, and I can only wonder wonder what happened to Curtis and his career.

Meanwhile, all I can do is to give his Law Park sculpture an affectionate wave every time I pedal past on the Lakeshore Bike Path.

1/31/08 Update: Shot in the snow with a wide angle lens.

6/25/08 Update: A visitor to Madison analyzes the visual text of "Timekeeper."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Street photography at the Art Fair on the Square

Evolution of a Street Photograph
Count me among the people whose interest in the Art Fair on the Square runs more to the people than the art. Nothing against art, far from it, but I'd rather look at it in the less crowded environment of a gallery. And then there's the fact that, armed with a camera, I'm not just interested in people in a pure and abstract sense -- I'm a street photographer.

People have argued about the exact definitions of this somewhat predatory art form for years. For some purists, it has to be black and white. For some, the image must not be cropped. I'm not that much a purist, and I'm working with a digital point-and-shoot, rather than the small 35mm cameras that were used by such masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. Cartier-Bresson worked more deliberately to create beautifully composed yet perfectly spontaneous compositions. Winogrand deliberately cultivated what came to be known as a snapshot esthetic. Frank was somewhere in between. What they all have in common is the pursuit of an idealized notion of visual truth, some perfect arrangement of elements in which everything comes together in what Cartier-Bresson used to call "the decisive moment." It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. These photographers shot hundreds, and in Winogrand's case, as many as thousands of frames for every image that was enlarged and exhibited or published. It was an art of selection, and the medium was the black and white 35mm contact sheet.

I miss the old contact sheets, but iPhoto is a lot easier to use. Here are iPhoto screenshots os some of the images I sorted through, looking for the one or two that I liked out of the hundreds I shot, holding the camera unobtrusively at my side, making sure the flash was turned off. Turns out I shot an amazing number of shots of feet, legs, office buildings, sky, sun -- almost everything but people. (I still have to work on that pointing thing a bit.) Nevertheless, there were a few people who appeared in my captures, and an even smaller number I liked. The one I think of as "The Art Dudes" was one of them.

I've circled where it appears on the iPhoto screens, surrounded by competitors for my attention, and then zooming in, indicating my preferred cropping (remember, I'm not a purist). Once I would have done this on a contact sheet with a grease pencil. Now I did it with a red virtual "pencil" in Photoshop. Making the selection was the hard part. After that, all that was left to do was crop the photo, open up the shadows and punch up the color a bit. Hope you like it.

Note: If you'd like to enlarge either image -- the iPhoto "contact sheet," or the final photo -- just click on it to open it up in Flickr.

Sunday morning imaginary "If Only"

From the "confession" written by Maureen Dowd for George Bush:
I’m sorry I keep pretending Iraq will get better if we stay longer. It wasn’t very nice of me to push the surge when I knew it couldn’t work. I just wanted to dump the defeat on my successor. I wish Hillary the best of luck.

If I had left the gym long enough to read about Algeria or even one of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, then I might have not gotten bogged down in Iraq and let North Korea, China and Russia slide.

Being the Decider is so confusing. I regret stealing the presidency and wish I could give it back.
If only. Times Select link