Purposeful Imperfections

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A Visual Inventory by John Pawson

A Visual Inventory by John Pawson (cover art)

If nothing else, an active photographic pursuit (in taking as well as viewing pictures) reminds us of the importance of looking. It’s an exercise that trains the eye and mind to steal quick moments of intrigue from our everyday environment. Simply (and somewhat platitudinously) put, it makes us aware of the potential beauty in every situation.

John Pawson’s A Visual Inventory is a kind of treatise on the powerful effect of purposeful seeing. Culled from a lifetime of photographic documentation, Pawson’s work is a testament to the visual interest inherent in unlikely places. His photographs rarely present a traditional subject or narrative, but, rather, what catches his eye are subtle lines, shapes, and forms–the geometry of environments. This phenomenon can be found everywhere, and it’s stunning to behold, especially when we realize that it’s as often the result of accident as intention. Incidental beauty–these subtle but pervasive designs–are what Pawson is keen to share with us.

Formally, A Visual Inventory is made up of pairs photos with some kind of shared theme. At times the pairings can rely a bit too heavily on obvious compositional parities, but, as a whole, the doubling and comparing of often disparate subjects is a powerful reminder of the visual world’s underlying structures. This is not to say that, when you get right down to it, everything is the same–far from it. It’s that there’s something powerful in being able to glean a consonant geometry that’s present everywhere we look. If, of course, we bother to do so.

Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow by Anthony Flint

Modern Man by Anthony Flint (cover art)

The name, Le Corbusier, rang a bell. I knew he was a twentieth-century architect. French, probably (Swiss, actually). Big concrete buildings came to mind. But that’s about all I knew off the top of my head. I had no idea that he was responsible for modular architecture, or that he was among the first to try to address overpopulation through dense urban planning. And I was certainly unaware that Le Corbusier was tackling all of this as early as the 1920s. Thus, Anthony Flint’s biography, Modern Man, is a worthy venture, shedding light on this thinker and provocateur who, outside of architecture and design circles, has undeservedly fallen out of recognition.

Of course, as with most visionaries, Le Corbusier had his share of missteps, often due to a megalomania and opportunism that wouldn’t keep him from working with anyone when it suited him, even the Nazi-connected Vichy Regime in WWII France. And, while he basically gave us IKEA and some initial ideas and blueprints to build smarter, he also championed the type of urban design that gave us crime-ridden housing projects and car-centric sprawl in America. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, but Flint reminds us not to throw the baby “out with the modernist bathwater.” (p. 213) Or, more poignantly:

“For the twenty-first-century, however, among the greatest lessons to be learned from Le Corbusier are his design innovations in housing, and his recognition of the grand scale necessary to accommodate millions of people moving into cities each year. The reasons those contributions are important is because the urban century has arrived, in dramatic fashion.” (p. 213)

Flint’s writing is clear and engaging, making for a fairly quick read. He structures each chapter around a major project of Le Corbusier’s, so those looking for a strictly chronological biography may grow a bit frustrated, as the narrative does bounce around quite a bit (an aspect I mostly found intriguing, though, at the start of a few chapters, I did find myself a bit confused as to which decade we had landed in). Regardless, those interested in architecture, built environments, urban planning, or even just design, will be hard pressed not to gain some insight from this text.

Chicago

Upward from the Avenue (2).

Upward from the Avenue (1).

Quadral facade.

Sisu Morning

Aerial Striations

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New Year’s Day

Crossing

Snow Dunes

Radial

Radial (Bridge)

Radial (Water)

Father and Son: A Lifetime by Marcos Giralt Torrente

Father and Son: A Lifetime by Marcos Giralt Torrente (cover art)

Many writers turn to their craft in an effort to conquer grief and past trauma, and Marcos Giralt Torrente is no exception. What’s curious about Father and Son is its circularity in this regard, as Giralt Torrente seems to also be lassoing his grief in order to spur on his writing. As the book progresses, the act of grieving and the act of writing become one, and the result is peculiar, visceral, and powerful. There’s an immediacy throughout, aided by Giralt Torrente’s frequent deployment of the present tense, and it’s a reminder that the past is a living document, one that can be perpetually reexamined and reworked.

So, while Father and Son is a poignant, personal examination of the remnants of his relationship with his father, it’s also about writing–in particular, how to write about the past. It’s about losing as well as gaining and creating something meaningful out of that which was all but destroyed. It’s about “Death and life mingling, as always, but shaded by something that supplants life by merging with it and moreover aspires to triumph over death itself.” (p. 81)

Night Lights

Alley lamp.

Car port.

Cuenca

punk's not dead

wall

My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Midway through Boyhood–book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle–a young Karl Ove earns himself a dose of comeuppance after emphatically pointing out that a classmate cannot read. “But it’s true,” he retorts, not understanding why voicing something that everyone is already aware of could be the source of conflict. In the end, it’s Karl Ove who’s in tears, trying to understand why it is that some truths are stones better left unturned. This episode is an interesting choice for inclusion on the part of Knausgaard because, in many ways, it seems that he never learned his lesson (or, perhaps, he has simply chosen to disregard adhering to this particular nicety). After all, 1000+ pages into this epic, it’s quite clear that a key method is to attempt to write about everything, including the messes and traumas that we’ve been told should stay packed away in the closet.

I’m now at the midpoint of the six-part series, and I still find it hard to articulate why I find Knausgaard’s work so riveting. And I’m not the only one. With each appearance of a new installment in english, another bevy of critics scramble to spell out exactly why these are “good” books (or, at least, why we keep reading them so intently). But I’m starting to think that the passage above may hold some semblance of an answer. With snark and sarcasm at the core of so much of contemporary discourse, operating in the realms of unbridled expression–be it in the form of passion or honesty or hatred–without at least an equal dose of qualification and skepticism is risking being labeled an unmannered rube. In this regard, Knausgaard is quite the outlier. He doesn’t avoid cliche, he doesn’t veil his opinions (however uncouth), he doesn’t let doubt cripple his motivation, and he (seemingly) doesn’t edit, but, instead, unapologetically gushes out these big, sloppy books. Such an effort is a breath of fresh air, frankly, if for no other reason that it provides a striking alternative to our current social dialogue.

Of course, whether it’s “great” writing or not is another topic (one that I see being debated ad nauseum–“He’s Proust for Gen-X!”). I’ll leave that debate for others. Issues of craft aside, his approach is not without other consequences, too–as Knausgaard has admitted, “I feel guilt for almost everything around this book…I was saying, ‘My book is more important than your life.’” This is very valid concern and one with complex ramifications, as it’s not exclusively his life that’s being shared with the world. I’m not exactly sure where I fall on this issue, but I do think that there is something deeply moving and human in such a bold approach, and, thus, I ultimately applaud Knausgaard for his willingness to take such a risk.

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