The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for the ‘Fine Arts’ Category

The Real Row Houses of Philadelphia

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Photographer Ben Marcin’s “Last House Standing” is a collection of images of single-standing row homes on mostly deserted blocks in Philadelphia (and her cousins in misery, Camden and Baltimore). In a way, it’s a catalogue of neglect and abandonment; though it manages to portray its lonely subjects with dignity, it also plays into a popular mindset that associates small and detached housing with antiquity and blight.

Like Marcin, I’ve always been fascinated by row homes, whether ruinous or genteel (though unlike Marcin, my tool for documenting them has been a more modest point-n-shoot). Part of the fascination has to do with the architecture, but I’m sure part also comes from not having lived in these homes growing up, longing for a denser urban experience.

These are the real row homes of Philadelphia: North, South, West, Northeast, river wards, Center City — homes that defined a city, at the turn of the last century, unique among her east coast peers in offering immigrants and working classes the chance to own their own homes, from basement to roof, from front stoop to back porch.





My only artistic purpose here, if one can call it that, is to revel in the beautiful, the healthy, the accidentally whimsical, the tragic, the hideous and the hanging-on among the city’s many blocks. The row house as a building concept may have fallen out of favor, and much of the housing stock has been lost through the years, but much of what’s still standing here is going to be around for a long time.

















Written by cwmote

April 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

An outdoor art gallery on Buenos Aires’ shuttered storefronts

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This is Avenida Patricios, a commercial avenue that serves as the border between two Buenos Aires neighborhoods, Barracas and La Boca. Both barrios have heapings of charm and grit, the kinds of traits associated with the city’s poorer southern half, although La Boca has the bigger reputation for seediness and crime.

The division between the two barrios was once as much visual as psychological; in La Boca, a port neighborhood historically vulnerable to flooding, the walkways in front of buildings rise and fall between three and six feet above the street level. A few years ago, the city government re-leveled the sidewalks of Patricios to make the avenue friendlier for pedestrians. Even with increased foot traffic, the street is still a hit-or-miss experience for retail, and a number of storefronts remain shuttered. Instead of amateur graffiti, however, these shutters bear dignified imitations of paintings that characterize the neighborhood.


Some popular images of the neighborhood, including the touristy Caminito (center)

I thought of Avenida Patricios recently when reading about a similar proposal for Germantown, Philadelphia’s historical onion of a neighborhood that has its own share of grit. The idea of painting the commercial shutters on Germantown Avenue to fight blight is a smart one, and while it won’t be the cure-all to stimulate retail, it certainly can instill a stronger perception of safety and vigilance in pedestrians who remain intimidated by it. And the idea of small-scale high-art isn’t a bad example to follow.

Here are a few more shots from Buenos Aires. Note that these were just the stores that were shuttered during the day; many more art pieces join them when the active businesses close at night.



And it’s not limited to the roll-down shutters: this business has touches of Van Gogh and Dalí between the windows, 24 hours a day:


What always captivated me about public art in Buenos Aires was its lack of pretense, its do-it-yourself quality that seemed to stay within the material limits of its surrounding grittiness instead of covering it in a sheen of newness. There were exceptions, of course, but in La Boca and Barracas, that from-the-ground-up impression was the rule. I do wonder how Philadelphia’s murals strike visitors, whether that same impression prevails — and it will be interesting to see what results comes of this similar proposal for Germantown.

Written by cwmote

March 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

More Art Notes: Phila. Museum introducing Pay-what-you-wish Wednesday Nights with free movies, yoga

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A scene from Art After 5. Now try to visualize all these people on mats lost in meditation…

A propos of First Weekends and extra art hours comes this announcement from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After souring many of its patrons when it cut back its pay-what-you-like Sundays to just the first Sunday of the month, the Museum is introducing a new name-your-price admission feature for Wednesday nights during extended hours from 5:00 to 8:45pm. Beginning February 13, you’ll come across art talks, live music, free film screenings, and a casual atmosphere of culture and chance encounters that makes you recall how fun real dating was before OkCupid. Think of it as a less snazzy cousin to the hugely successful Art After 5 Fridays, only with patrons taking yoga classes(!) by the grand steps instead of sipping overpriced Steven Starr cocktails.

It’s hard to complain about more museum hours, and it looks like the events calendar will offer something for everyone. And seriously, lovelorn singles, some of the date scenarios practically write themselves: see if you can go wrong with a little Cezanne and a screening of Amélie on February 27.

Written by cwmote

February 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Art Notes: Dilworth Plaza rising, First Friday expanding

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Today is First Friday (already!), but here’s something new to try rolling off the tongue: First Weekend. Turns out that the Old City galleries have been such a success despite the economic downturn (cynical translation: are so desperate for sales precisely because of the economic downturn) that they will offer educational programs and restaurant partnerships for Sunday brunches along with their usual extended Friday night viewing hours. Will sidewalk artists expand their encampments accordingly? All legends start somewhere.


rendering of Pulse (image: Knight Arts)

Speaking of encampments: you know how the City started wrecking the old Dilworth Plaza outside of City Hall as an excuse to evict the Occupiers? Here’s some evidence that it was more than just a really good excuse: structural steel improvements to the concourse connecting the Market-Frankford station to the plaza have been successfully completed. Next step, now that your commute will become a little less hellish: the plaza makeover will become visible at the surface level by the summertime. Part of the makeover will be visibly enhanced by the installation of Pulse, a sculpture by Janet Echelman, made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We’re not sure if the sculpture consists of the reflecting pool or the curvy flares that slice through it, but whatever it is, it looks cool — and Philadelphia’s homeless (and Occupiers…but I repeat myself…kidding!) will probably be deterred from camping out around it when the plaza reopens in 2014.

Otherwise, it’s one of those can’t-go-wrong weekends. Groundhog Day? Super Bowl party? Puppy Bowl party??? Get with it, man. Opportunity knocks.

Written by cwmote

February 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Inside Philadelphia: ‘Lobbying’ the Interiors of Washington Square

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You can’t get all of the city’s history through its outdoors. I realized this when I visited the Athenaeum, Philadelphia’s premier resource on the city’s architectural and artistic history, part library and part museum, overlooking Washington Square.

We all know that each year, tens of thousands tour the inside of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, one of the city’s (and country’s) most distinguished 18th-century structures. To continue the history tour into the 19th century, it’s worth taking a peek inside the Athenaeum just a block away. It’s completely free and uncrowded — and, if you allow yourself, pretty breathtaking.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia was founded in 1814. The institute has been at its present home since 1845. The exterior is in the Italianate style, while the neoclassical interior — not surprisingly for a Greek-named institute in a Greek-named city — has some nice historical flashes, particularly Corinthian pillars.

One of the reading rooms on the second floor

Plaque commemorating the dedication of the building


From the stairwell


How many other surprises can you find around here? Try the grandiose building just up the corner from this one: the former home of the Curtis Publishing Company. A monument to a time when half of all Americans read magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, this 1910 Georgian edifice still holds some tributes to the old money that built it within its doors.

The company was founded by Cyrus H.K. Curtis. His son-in-law, Edward Bok, became the most famous editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. His daughter, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founded the Curtis Institute of Music.

Few lobbies in the city rival that of the Curtis Building. It’s here that you’ll find the regal marble and Tiffany glass, the centerpiece being a 20-foot-wide mosaic called The Dream Garden.

It’s a big mosaic


There are other features, including a pretty big inner courtyard space to give yourself perspective on the scope of the building. But The Dream Garden is the big attraction, and an underutilized one — again, considering that Independence Hall is literally across the street.

The courtyard

The Curtis lobby: another angle; more Tiffany glass

One more gem, and that’s the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. Designed by the esteemed architect Horace Trumbauer, the erstwhile hotel at 9th and Chestnut now houses condos and apartments. If you’ve been there but aren’t fortunate enough to live there, chances are you went to a doctor’s office; the massive campus of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is across the street.

Even if you don’t need a prescription, the Ben Franklin’s lobby is its own excuse for a peek inside. Here’s an ex-hotel that knew not to part with its history.


Some work in progress

Try not to strain your neck

Although there is a cafe inside, there really isn’t much here that would attract visitors. Center City is realizing much of its residential boom, yet its retail potential continues to vegetate somewhat.

But things could be worse. The lobby here is in the midst of some renovation, a favorable sign, at minimum, that the glitz is being kept up. In the meantime, it remains another of the city’s best-kept secrets, which the elect few explorers can have all to themselves.

The story behind the mystery woman on that billboard at 10th and Reed

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If you’ve shopped recently at the South Philly Acme on Passyunk Ave. near 10th and Reed Streets, you may have noticed a nondescript billboard image of a bespectacled, heavy-jowled woman overlooking the intersection.

A closer look

If you’ve been left bemused by the image, wondering what commercial product is supposed to be sold here, then the ad campaign has paid off. The woman is, in fact, a real person. Her name is Antoinette Conti, and she’s your typical South Philly neighbor. And the neighbor who captured her in this picture is the local photographer Zoe Strauss — best known, until recently, for her DIY photo exhibits underneath the concrete no man’s land of I-95.

Throughout the city, 52 other images in Strauss’ collection are similarly being displayed without comment or explanation. You may also know the images at 15th and Vine, 9th and Spring Garden, and 62nd and Market, as well as Cottman and Brous in the Northeast — candid portraits of everyday people, or unorthodox perspectives on their lives and living spaces.

All of these displays are a carefully coordinated effort to repurpose commercial spaces towards non-commercial ends. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s retrospective, “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years,” opened on January 14 and runs through April 22. Although it’s a big leap from under the expressway to inside the halls of the establishment, it is great to see a hometown artist, a champion of the poor and working classes, getting her dues and a wider audience. Watch this space for more on the retrospective itself.

Reinventing the Global City at the UN’s “Design” Exhibit

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Colorful rays of sunshine over a shantytown in Rio at “Design with the Other 90%: Cities,” at the UN Visitors Centre. (Apologies for the low res)

In 1960, after a hundred thousand years of human activity, the world’s population stood at just over three billion. Today, that number has reached a staggering seven billion — especially astounding considering that we’ve added a billion people in the last twelve years alone.

The United Nations has declared October 31 to be the birthday of Baby 7 Billion — a wholly symbolic designation, of course, as population estimates are, at best, very educated guesses. Whoever the seven billionth human turns out to be, it’s also a good guess that he or she will grow up in an informal urban settlement — the charitable term for a slum. With half of the world’s people now living in cities, more than one billion inhabit shantytowns and squat settlements, and that number could easily double in the next twenty years. Seeking the upward mobility and opportunity that cities promise, these slum dwellers nevertheless lack immediate access to the basic amenities of a developed society: clean water, secure housing, reliable infrastructure, and quality health care and education.

A model of a redesigned village along Bangkok’s Bang Bua Canal (above the water) versus the original layout (below). The homes have been realigned to allow for unimpeded access to the waterfront.

Design with the Other 90%: Cities, at the UN Visitors Centre, goes a long way towards illustrating the full scope of global urban development in the 21st century. Rather than focus only on statistics, which tends to induce a sort of guilt-trip-by-the-numbers over the challenges of eradicating poverty and curbing population growth, the exhibit presents the solutions that are actually being implemented. The communities profiled are found on the outskirts of sprawling cities in what is commonly labeled the Global South: Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Oceania. While their inhabitants struggle for full incorporation into their cities proper, a network of urban visionaries is designing new ways to formalize the informal, and rekindling the conversation on what cities can be.

The celebration of design is part and parcel of Design Other 90’s raison d’etre. As its name suggests, the non-profit group concentrates on design of products, both essential and artistic, to benefit the large population that, it believes, doesn’t traditionally receive it. (The focus in this case is not on 90%, but 15% of the world’s population, which is still pretty significant.)

Urban design, it turns out, covers a lot of bases. It can be as simple as aesthetic beautification, as in the exhibit’s most arresting image, a block of a favela in Rio de Janeiro painted over with rays of color by the renowned Dutch artists Haas & Hahn. (NOTE: this sentence has been corrected; it originally identified the painted favela as being in São Paulo.) It can also involve bringing a visual identity to what are often overlooked, unmapped communities, as in the case of a hill-climbing barrio in Lima that sees itself for the first time when a weather balloon captures the neighborhood from above.

While the theme of marginalization is recurrent in “Cities,” the unique difficulties posed by the geographical and sociological ensure that no two poverties around the world are identical. Dhaka’s villages endure periodic flooding, while Nairobi’s are feeling the effects of a severe drought that has pushed a population bigger than New York City to the brink of starvation. São Paulo’s favelas have electricity, even wifi, but little security; Bangkok’s relatively peaceful slums crowd canals and are in danger of collapse.

A public artist paints the faces of women onto houses in hillside slums to draw greater attention to the role of women in society.

Similarly, the innovations arise from the particular needs and resources of a given locale. Community centers and public spaces grant more power and security to women and children, whose vulnerability remains far more universal than any geographical limitation. Energy-efficient solutions, smart yet simple, also get a lot of space. Solar panels are introduced into housing in a planned settlement in Kenya. In neighboring Tanzania, where few homes have electricity, a cell phone charger powered by heat from a revolving bicycle wheel keeps people connected and mobile. And in Indonesia, EcoFaeBricks are developed as a lighter and cheaper alternative than clay bricks; their magic ingredient, it’s revealed, comes from cows. (Hint: a non-dairy ingredient.) They’re also stronger than clay and, since they’re made from replenishable waste, emit less carbon dioxide to produce.

The exhibit includes a mix of media, from small-scale models to video footage of quotidian city life, to underscore the sense of vibrancy in these communities, celebrating progress without shying away from the persisting hardships. Although there is some interactivity — you can walk across the life-size floor plan of a Bangkok hut — it’s not the exhibit’s strong point. Visitors can browse through a booklet on a iPad, but this can feel more cumbersome to use than a real paper edition. Some pieces also appeared to be out of commission during my visit, like the Ugandan “Digital Drum,” essentially a computer station constructed out of a periscope-shaped oil barrel. A non-functioning computer at an exhibit is like a book cover with all the pages inside missing.

Where “Cities” succeeds, however, is in the delivery of its message. There is no dreaming of a better world, imagining the possible; there is instead making the possible happen, putting ideas into action and yielding results. That it holds itself back from imagining even more could be perceived as a weakness by some. Yet it is hard to argue with what has been realized in these communities with smaller resource pools than developed societies, examples that should be especially informative to those of us who are not accustomed to achieving more with less.

Although it’s currently fashionable to divide society into percentages denoting the haves and have-nots, the “Other 90%” designation should not be seen as invidious. The technologies highlighted in the exhibit are not limited to wealthy nations reaching out to poor ones. They come from all over: international NGOs, municipal governments, homegrown artists and Western-educated entrepreneurs. (The EcoFaeBricks were designed by students at an Indonesian business school.) More than anything, “Cities” shows off the creativity that is transforming underdeveloped communities via solutions that are practical, resourceful, aesthetically dignifying and socially empowering. They make it easier to perceive the world in terms of a single community — the one hundred percent — instead of one stratified and reduced to statistics.

“Design with the Other 90%: Cities” runs through January 9, 2012 at the UN Visitors Centre, First Avenue and 47th Street, New York. Entry is free and open to the public. To learn more, go to