Fall Of The Berlin Wall (Legoland Version)

I enjoyed this stirring re-enactment of the events of November 10, 1989:

Notice how there’s a Hasselhoff-ian figure atop the mobile platform thing, and how lights start going on and off as he performs once the Wall falls. Nice touch. This atones for the minor historical inaccuracy my wife pointed out: that the Wall actually falls from the West into the East in this little drama.

From random ……….. to planned

In yet another very old post, I unveiled The Old Apartment Rule, my proposal that anyone ought to be allowed to ask for a quick five minute tour of any apartment or house that they’ve previously lived in from the current residents. I finagled my way into a real-life instance of this last week when we went back to Prague last week for a short visit and stopped by our old apartment that we’re currently subletting to pick up mail. There was the sight of our old place— ours for five-plus years, the longest I’ve lived at any one address as an adult!— shifted around and decorated with somebody else’s knick-knacks and sensibilities. I worried that the cognitive dissonance would fry my son’s young brain, but he enjoyed the visit and seemed unbothered by the weird collision of old/new, ours/not-ours.

Also strangely transformed is Prague’s hlavní nadraži, aka main train station. They’ve been renovating it for several years now in order to turn it into a typical spacious, organized, appealing, identical Western European train hub, just like any other. Previously, it had this weird sense of spatial compression from the low ceilings and an infernal red-ness, plus the large number of pigeons that seemed to be trapped inside at any given moment:

(photo credit: milov)

[Admission: actually, this renovation basically finished like a year ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about this whole time, but only just remembered when I was back there this week.]

In general, the changes are nice, if bland. It’s nice to be able to buy your ticket from a visible, accessible person rather than leaning over to shout into a tiny voice hole set in shatterproof glass with a grumpy, shadowy personage lurking behind. It’s nice to be able to buy food that you don’t instantly hurl into a garbage can four steps later. But most of all, I’m delighted by this series of ads that appear in the station, touting the improvements made. They are essentially before-and-after pictures, with a shot from the old unrenovated days on top and an up-to-date image below. Like this:

‘From random…. to planned,’ boasts the caption. First, I love the fact that they took the effort to organize a shoot of characteristic stuff from the old station just so they could poop on it later by dint of comparison. You can just see the proprietor of the ‘random’ stand throwing up his arms in insulted disbelief upon seeing this: What?! That’s what I was told to sell. That’s what Czech people eat!

The series contains several other gems:

The abandoned, sloshy bucket on the floor is really great. Again: it kills me to imagine the prop wrangler and art director for this shoot in action.

This might be the best:

From the ‘before’ scene, the grumpy old guy scratching his head is perfect casting— I mean, I can just picture myself defeatedly approaching that guy for information and trying to struggle through a conversation with him in Czech all the while knowing that it’s not going to avail me of anything. But what’s up with the woman straddling the suitcases? The encounter doesn’t seem that ‘distant’. It actually seems kind of ‘romantic’, at least when compared with the Oral-B blandness of the lower ‘new and improved’ reality.

Shine on, you crazy kids.

Other images in the series get a bit more predictable— this one, for example, uses the old black-and-white vs. color contrast used in every negative political campaign spot since the dawn of time:

Still, there are nice details sprinkled throughout. Notice above, for example, that while the bad old days were devoid of color and lighted signs, they were replete with leering strangers with no umbrella heckling you from the neighboring bench.

p.s. any time we’re on the subject of Czech mass transit, it’s worth linking one more time to the timeless Onion TV bit about Prague’s Franz Kafka Airport.

Inside the Spanish Synagogue

I have a new design project that seems interesting. It’s a competition between five designers to create a new identity for the Prague Jewish Museum. What makes this especially compelling (beyond the fact that it doesn’t involve selling sneakers, or producing Flash banner ads with involve breakdancing clowns, or adding a Miffles stream-of-consciousness feature) is that the fact that the Prague Jewish Museum isn’t just a museum per se but rather a group of six interrelated historical sites in the Old Town. So, it’s like designing (or trying to design, anyway) an identity for a considerable chunk of the Josefov district.

This is what differentiates the Prague Jewish Museum from all others, I would say: Berlin might have a cool Daniel Libeskind-authored concept, another city might have a great exhibits, or artefacts (or actual Jewish people living in the city, for that matter, something Prague essentially does not have)… but Prague is the only city I know of that can bring an actual historically-preserved Jewish Quarter to the table. Famously, the area was left intact by the Nazis during WW2 following Hitler’s chilling decree that it should remain standing as a ‘monument to an extinguished race’. Interestingly, though, when I met the museum directors to discuss the logo project, they were eager to dispel the general misconception that this marked the beginning of the attempts to preserve the district (which would make Hitler the de facto founder of the museum, in a weird way… so you can see why they were eager to correct this notion). Actually, the preservation effort had already begun in the beginning of the 20th century, when urban renewal projects in the New Town started to prompt concern about the potential destruction of synagogues and artifacts contained within.

This is a architect's sketch of the above-mentioned cool Berlin concept. The museum's logo is simply this distinctive shape.


Anyway, my strategy this time is to avoid all attempts at ‘creative thinking’ and go straight for a trusty cliché. So, I’m thinking: a star of David… but instead of the star having points, each point will be a well-recognized Prague tourist site, such as the Charles Bridge or Prague Castle. It can’t miss!

One fun thing about this project is that I’ve been furnished with a pass to all six sites and a special form granting me permission to take photos (as to gather fuel for my awesome and mysterious ‘creative process’, if you will). On the downside, this entails setting foot into the utter tourist INSANITY that is happening at all times but especially during the springtime in the Old Town Square. It’s indescribable: a constant rate of chaos and oblivious people with backpacks bumping into each other in narrow spaces that you COMPLETELY forget about the existence of if you’ve lived in Prague for a while. Still, it’s well worth it for the chance to see these sites again, and also for the opportunity to ham it up and self-importantly brandish my photo permission at the smallest of pretexts.

I used my ‘press pass’ to take the photo at the top of this post, which is the ceiling of the Spanish Synagogue. I would love to post a bunch more photos, but worry that I will get in trouble for abusing my photo privileges. (It seems to me that the ceiling is known and photographed enough that it shouldn’t be a problem to post this one lone shot– if you are a director for the museum and reading this and thinking about getting angry at me, please consider this logic.) The artifacts on display inside this building included lots of lovely old book covers (my favorite!) and also a few sample bills of the special worthless ‘funny money’ that was issued to Jews inside the ghetto (back when Josefov was a walled-in apartheid zone). The text on the bills was, of course, written in German (naturally… but still strange to see) and really did look like Monopoly money.

However, my vaunted ‘press pass’ did not allow me the exalted, unmolested status I’d hoped for. The photo at the top of this post was taken milliseconds prior to me being subjected to a lengthy and melodramatic plea from the security guard not to take any more photos. This despite the fact that I’d already shown her my pass and she’d already okayed it. Apparently, her thought process was that she first accepted my right to take photos but then freaked out when she realized that the Synagogue was full of people (as it always is, duh) who were likely to take my lead and start trying to take photos themselves. Therefore, her appeal to me was delivered not on the grounds of museum policy, but rather as a sort of desperate personal favor: Can’t you come back on Saturday instead when I’m not here? You’re making my life harder! This, I must opine, is a classic example of the old-school Communist generation mindset at work: the beleaguered functionary’s total inability to consider both sides of an equation and make everyone’s interests meet within a given dynamic. Go do your job!, I considered hissing at her, but in actuality wilted under the barrage of her long, insistent pleas (delivered exclusively in Czech, what’s more– maybe that’s part of what wore me down) and just made little sketches of whatever else interested me.

Shot of the Ghetto funny-money discussed above, taken by somebody else (i.e. not me further abusing my photo pass)

The Faery Of Electricity

With the end of the world seemingly at hand, I’m taking a small amount of comfort in the fact that the best day of the year is right around the corner. Granted, that isn’t much to hang one’s hat on– the rate of natural disasters and toppled dictators has been so alarmingly accelerated as of late that I’m half expecting this laptop to blow up in my face as I type. Also– strangely– I’ve been so overwhelmed with work this year and preoccupied with a prospective move to a new city that my usual seasonal affective disorder hasn’t fully had a chance to kick in, if that makes sense. Paradoxically, I’ve more or less breezed through the winter  in a cocoon of my own little micro-anxieties and fixations. So, in a sense, I’m anticipating clocks-go-forward-day with a little less eagerness than in years past. But still…

As an homage to clocks-go-forward day, here are a few other fun facts I’ve learned about man’s attempts to conquer darkness:

1. The Herring Angle

Lately, I’ve been trying to read The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, on the RABID recommendation of a few friends. So far, it’s kind of falling into the Gram Parsons Zone for me– I appreciate it, but it’s not really taking.

One detail that I loved, though, is the mention of attempts in 1870 by two British scientists named (this is the best part:) Herrington and Lightbrown to use the glowing oil excreted by dead herrings to light the world. Their idea was that, since herrings mysteriously light up as they die, maybe a self-regenerating source of luminescence could be produced from tiny thirst-inducing fish. I love the idea of herrings becoming a key commodity in the modern world. This would be convenient because, as Sebald mentions, every herring lays enough eggs to produce a volume of herrings 70 times the size of the earth.

Also, imagine having a business card that states your name as ‘Herrington’ and underneath in smaller letters says ‘Herring Expert’. Outstanding.

2. The Two Sleeps Angle

If you wake up in the middle of the night after a couple hours of sleep (something that’s been happening to me a lot lately– see above micro-anxieties), it turns out this is what people routinely did for thousands of years, up until the industrial revolution. People would sleep a few hours, then get up, smoke a pipe, hangout, whatever, for a bit before going back to bed for a ‘second sleep’. Makes sense when there was no way for most people to afford artificial light, and so nighttime was about a billion hours long in winter. I guess this is when all the brooding got done in plays like Hamlet– he was up pacing around between sleeps.

3. Chicken-Or-Egg Electricity Thing

The whole two-sleeps thing had been buried for good by the time that Edison invented the electric lightbulb and (as an art history documentary I show my designs students puts it) ‘the faery of electricity was loosed on the world’. It’s sort of weird to imagine society suddenly ‘launching’ the lightbulb as a product and–  for that matter– electricity in general. I mean, I assume that lightbulbs were first introduced at a municipal level in the form of street lamps– you didn’t just go out and buy a lightbulb in the early days. But how, then, did the whole thing eventually spread to rural American homes? You need an electricity-powered lamp if you’re going to buy a lightbulb… but you also need a proliferation of lamps before the local store is going to start carrying lightbulbs. So how did it start?

The same conundrum sort of applies to electricity in general: how did they convince a ignoramousy public to allow electricity to be installed into their homes if there was nothing to use this mysterious force for?

I do vaguely remember learning that in the early days, a pointless little rubber mat was sold to a fearful Americans that you were supposed to place on your floor underneath the electrical socket, to ‘soak up’ any stray electricity that might happen to leak out of the wall socket and dribble down the wall. Such was their understanding of the whole phenomenon. Unfortunately, the internet is letting me down in terms of turning up a photo to confirm this, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

(Top image: Peter Behrens’ fantastic AEG ad from 1907, promoting a new lightbulb. Pretty early instance of the basic visual vocabulary of abstraction finding its way into mass commercial media).

Jazz 78s, part one

Back in 2003, I took an advanced typography class where we had to do a sort of self-generated thesis project. I wound up looking at typography associated with different genres of Jamaican music, which actually held together as a topic more coherently than I’d dared hope. One of my classmates, Lora Santiago, did something around the crates of old 78s that her dad had collected. I immediately her asked for the images, and still love to just put them on as a slideshow from time to time…

Pitchfork's Top Albums of 1909

From my replica Sears Catalog from 1909, check out this bogglingly weird selection of records available for order (click picture for much larger image).

There’s a whole section of ‘Laughing Songs’, for example, including a little number called ‘And Then I Laughed’. If laughing stories are more up your alley than laughing songs, you’re in luck: there’s a wide selection of ‘The Famous Uncle Josh Weatherby’s Laughing Stories.”

Also contains: jarring racism. Interestingly, the Dutch get the brunt of this almost as much as blacks do.

For more fun with the replica Sears Catalog, check out the Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment.

The Best Day of the Year

It happened two weeks ago in San Francisco;  it’s happening next Sunday here in Prague. It’s the day the clocks move forward, unequivocally my favorite day of the year. If we ever getting around to casting off the shackles of the Gregorian calendar (a task the Czechs have gotten a small-but-significant head start at), I would propose that this become the new first day of the year. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the calendar roll over on this day, the unofficial start of spring and good times, rather than on some random dark-ass date in the middle of winter? Clocks Go Forward Day always feels like the beginning of something big– how many days can you say that about?

In my opinion, it’s a shame that Clocks Go Forward Day isn’t met with more ritualistic fanfare– a day off from work, a few pagan rites, etc. I feel like we’ve been conditioned to greet it with an air of shrugging indifference, an attitude that I suppose stems in part from the fact that Clocks Go Forward Day is a scheduled routine, a rational measure that doesn’t really feel magical. (Imagine, in contrast, if the change just happened out of the blue one evening with no warning– poof, an extra hour of light! People would be freaking out). But I can’t help but suspect that the constant bean-counting and whining of Daylight Savings Time detractors also impacts our attitude towards this day. You know them: the Oh-no-I’m-losing-one-hour-of-sleep crowd. Let’s just say this isn’t a set of priorities that I have a lot of respect for. In fact, I wish I could do business with it, in a colorful-beads-for-Manhattan-Island-type exchange: ‘Okay, I’ll give you this one shiny hour of sleep in exchange for months of light spring and summer evenings.”

Like everything, the idea of Daylight Savings Time was invented by Benjamin Franklin. During his sojourn in Paris as an American delegate, Franklin observed rows of houses with shutters as the Parisians struggled to sleep through the blasting morning sunshine (incidentally, the same sight that inspired Al Gore to propose the invention of  the internet 200 years later). Although Franklin only proposed the idea half-jokingly in a satirical essay, it was picked up by a London builder named William Willett who spent a fortune lobbying for it and managed to get it brought before the British Parliament, only to have it laughed off the floor. I can only imagine what a lonely existence it must have been to be the sole proponent of moving the clocks forward, the endless ridicule one would have been subjected to. Once Germany enacted Daylight Savings Time, Great Britain began to take it more seriously, but only finally started moving their clocks forward after much contentious political debate. The leader of the anti-DST side seems to have been Lord Balfour, the original I-want-my-one-hour-of-sleep bean-counter. At one point, he raised the following imaginative scenario: “Supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born 10 minutes before 1 o’clock. … the time of birth of the two children would be reversed. … Such an alteration might conceivably affect the property and titles in that House.” Presumably, this was immediately followed by men with powered wigs rioting and tearing up chairs.

The only thing I’ll say in defense of Lord Balfour’s point of view is that the time change does create some really mind-bending and inconvenient scenarios when one is operating between countries that have different DST dates. My attempts to do freelance work for outfits based in the U.S. come to a screeching halt during the two week period between the American and European DST start dates, as we constantly screw up and miss each other’s  calls. More surreally, when I went to New Zealand a few years ago, the time change happened at different times and in different directions. For part of my trip, the difference was 21 hours, then 22 for a few days, then finally 23, which made the massive time change feel even more science fiction-y that it already would have.

Of course, you can’t have Daylight Savings Time without Standard Time, which itself only came about after considerable wrangling and arm-twisting. Before the railroads really took off, there wasn’t really this idea of people all observing one exact time- they pretty much just went by whatever the local sundial said. It was only in the late 19th century that there began to be a need to have everyone on the exact same time. When the measure was imposed on Detroit in 1900, the city resisted, leading to a bizarre situation where half the town was following Standard Time and half was following the ol’ town sun dial for a spell.

The entire notion of Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time, of time zones and of setting the clocks ahead and back to suit human activities and preserve energy– it’s really one of the more brazen acts of Enlightenment thinking (along with, say, carving up the Middle East into distinct nation states– that one didn’t work out so well). One can only imagine the thrill and nervousness experienced by the person tasked with drawing a line down the map and declaring that the two sides would obey practices regarding something as basic as man’s relationship to the sun.

(Photo: stolen from my friend Jess’ Facebook page, of our friends hanging out in Dolores Park in the summer twilight).

(See this excellent site for more info on history and practice of Daylight Savings Time)

The printing press: pain in the ass, now as it was then

On Monday night, veteran newspaper and magazine man David Wadmore did a guest lecture at Prague College, the second of his highly entertaining talks that I’ve managed to catch. Wadmore has been designing for newsprint and periodicals for so long that some of his reveries about the old days remind me of those sepia-toned segments in the Simpsons where Monty Burns recalls his youth. Ah, the Lord Stanhope Press… she ran on steam!

For almost the first five and half centuries of its existence, the printing press barely changed at all, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it was probably the most significant invention of its millenium and landed Johannes Gutenberg at the #1 spot in A&E’s goofball ‘People of the Millennium‘ countdown. Personally, I was a little disappointed that the other Gutenberg– Steve– didn’t make the list as well somewhere– I mean, four Police Academy movies? Get out. Meanwhile, how about being Bill Gates (#41, the highest-rated alive person) and knowing that you sit a few spots above William the Conqueror and Machiavelli? That’s gotta feel good. On the other hand, imagine James Joyce watching from heaven as he’s dropped one spot behind Ronald Reagan.

Getting back to the point: in the 1880s, the cartel of New York newspapers were offering an open reward of a cool million dollars to anybody who could speed up type-setting production by 25-30%. Having done some type-setting by hand as a nerdy enterprise, I literally find it hard to even wrap my head around the idea of a daily newspaper being set by hand– it makes me slightly nauseated to think of the constant frantic whirl of human activity that this entailed. A German named Otto Merganthaler delivered humankind from this bondage with his invention of the linotype machine, a wild contraption of a thing that looks like this:

Person sits on stool, taps on typewriter; meanwhile, sinister spindly arms up top slide corresponding negative-impression letters, numbers and characters onto a tray to form a line onto which hot lead is poured, producing a line of type (‘line o’ type‘). Newspaper production is sped up, newspapers can afford to sell copies for slightly less, news-literate public grows widely, whole system flourishes until a combination of Roger Ailes and the internet conspire to squash it like a bug.

What’s easy to forget– unless you’re reminded by a handy guest lecture– is what a pain printing then remained for the next hundred years. Wadmore had a great account of how the simple process of reversing out a box of type (that is, printing white on a black box) required something like seven people, in part due to the insane union regulations that essentially forbade anyone from physically giving anything to anyone else and instead demanded that a messenger be used as a conduit. My old typography teacher used to create the impression that the phototype and early pseudo-computer processes that came along right before desktop publishing were almost more thankless than handsetting type, in the sense that they involved a lot of the same inconvenience but also took you away from the ameliorating rustic pleasures of handling type by hand and instead replaced it by peering into monitors that were attached to computers with no undo function:

(Photo credit: Flick user Alki1)

After his first Prague College lecture, Wadmore opened things up to Q&A– I immediately asked him something designed to get him to tell us about the most hair-raising screw-ups and blunders that he experienced in his many years on the job. He diverted the question slightly but came up with a great response: the night that Lady Di (someone who also inexplicably appears on the ‘Top People of the Milennium’ list, by the way) died, the entire press corps of London happened to be at a uproarious wedding of some high-ranking colleague. So, in the wee hours of the morning, they were woken up one by one by their respective papers and ordered to get to Paris on the first possible plane. So: the next time you see re-run news coverage of her death, stop for a moment to appreciate the collective hangover of the press covering the event, and their unsung heroism in soldiering forward with the story.

Spite Houses

Just in time for the holidays, I bring tidings of “spite houses,” structures built for the sole purpose of irritating the neighbors (by blocking their access to light and air, etc.).

I have to say — I can imagine something like this happening, but I’m a litle taken aback that this concept is so well-embedded in our culture that there is a commonly-recognized term for it. This wikipedia page contains many examples of “famous” spite houses, including the little bugger pictured to the right. It will also teach you about the less-common, but still spiteful “spite fences.”

The best part about a spite house? Because it isn’t built for any practical use by its owner, there is a lot of leeway when it comes to design — you can really let your imagination soar when the structure you’re building has no intended use beyond to irritate!

Obecní Dům Cherub

dobre_dan 202

I’m really fond of our flat here in Prague (and, yes, I know that ‘flat’ sounds pretentious to my American readers, but that’s just how we do things here, so it sounds normal to me now… much like cooing ‘ciao’ to acquaintances). It’s big, cheap, in the attic of a villa and has all sorts of strange quirks and features. Unfortunately, it’s also a deathtrap-in-waiting for our young son as soon as he gets older and starts moving around, with splintery beams, abrupt ledges and – worst of all– a spiral staircase with no bannister. So, facing the reality that we’ll have to move out once our ticking time-bomb of a child gets older, I’m already starting to nostalgize the place a bit. Consider this the beginning of a series: ‘Weird, Quirky Old Aspects Of Our Flat That I’ll Miss Once We’ve Had To Move.’

WQOAOOFTIMOWHTM #1: Obecní Dům Cherub

With all the hurly-burly of finishing The Book and my subsequent visit to an Alpine sanatorium, I forgot to mention that the wife and I had a chance to go to Obecní Dům (Prague’s Municipal House) two weeks ago for a friend’s upscale birthday party. Obecní Dům is one of the architectural landmarks of Czech’s brief one-of-the-ten-richest-countries-in-the-world phase between the wars: Art Noveau masterpiece, houses works by Alfons Mucha, blah blah blah…


This was the first time I’d actually been inside the Municipal House, and the visit was significant to me for one thing because we’ve actually had an artifact of Obecní Dům hanging in our flat this whole time, although I didn’t realize it until fairly recently. When we originally moved in, this giant cement baby head was there to greet us, stonily starting at the floor from his (?) wooden beam perch:


(Note: I realize the balloon spoils the effect a bit, but it’s left over from our Halloween party and the kid likes it. So, it stays).

Being generally intimidated by babies, I avoided making eye contact with the thing for a while and wondered if I would come downstairs someday to find it mysteriously vanished in the same unaccountable fashion that it had appeared in the first place. Eventually resigned to its presence, I thought to ask our landlord about it when he gamely showed up at one of our parties for a few minutes. A semi-retired architect, he told me that he had been involved in a restorative face-lift of Obecní Dům at some point and had managed to pinch it from the site!

While I was at it, it thought I might as well ask him who the previous tenants were. This is the kind of flat where you wind up being sort of curious about your predecessors, given that – as explained above – the place is sort of oddball and only conveniently set up for young-ish, child-less couples. This led to the following exchange:

Landlord: Oh, they were a very nice couple. Much like you, actually: the woman was Czech and the man was an American. And they liked traveling quite a bit.

Me: [starting to get creeped out imagining exact doubles of us living here before us]

Landlord: (after a pause) Except they were quite old. Older than us, in fact.

Me: [radically recalibrating my mental image in light of the fact that my landlord is about 70 years old]

So, there seems to be sort of a ‘Benjamin Button’ dynamic happening with our place. Whether the magic powers of the Obecní Dům Cherub has anything to do with this phenomenon can only be guessed at.