Monday, March 29, 2010

Interview with Beinecke Curator Christa Sammons

It was my great pleasure to sit down recently with Christa Sammons, curator of German literature at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Ms. Sammons, who studied German at Mount Holyoke College and Yale University, began working at the Beinecke Library in 1968 and shared with me some of her most memorable stories about the building and the collection.

Construction of the Beinecke Library, which was designed by Gordon Bunshaft / SOM, began 50 years ago this year. In honor of the anniversary photographs of the original architectural model for the building are featured throughout.

Great thanks are owed to Bryn Savage, a doctoral candidate at Yale and Beinecke enthusiast, for making this possible. Her comments also appear throughout the interview.

(SM) How did your career first begin at the Beinecke Library?

(CS) I was a graduate student and my husband was a professor. I married the professor essentially which would not be allowed these days. I thought when I got married I would sit home and make scones and meat loaf and he said go out and get a job. I had studied in the library for the past four years, so I went to the library and asked for a job. They said there was an opening at the Beinecke, at what was then the circulation desk. While I was still writing my dissertation I was working there at access services as someone who interfaces with the people who come down. I worked at that for two years. At that time I became assigned to work with the librarian of the German collection, because I had a degree in German. Then her husband died and she decided to go back to Germany so I basically fell into the job.

(SM) What part of the building do you work in now?

(CS) I have office on the east side of the building courtyard.

(SM) So you look onto the Noguchi sculpture garden?

(CS) Yes, as we call it the donut, the cube and the pyramid.

(CS) You know the great story about that? One day the first director was coming out of the library and he had E.J. Beinecke with him and they were going out to lunch. An undergrad was sitting on the wall looking down onto the Noguchi and said, “What damn fool paid for those?” E.J. walked up to him and said, “I am the damn fool who paid for those.”

(SM) What do you do in your job? What is a normal day like for you?

(CS) That’s hard to say because I have done so many things. When we were making publications I often liaised with the designers. I am going to retire soon, so now I am cleaning up the German collection which will not have a special curator anymore. I making sure everything has a record. What is the job of a curator at the Beincke? You do a lot of collection development, which means identifying things to add to the collection. That could be through finding donors or collectors and convincing them to give up something from their collection, or purchases from rare book dealers or at auction, and that takes a great deal of time. Then there is specialized reference work. When some aspect of research becomes too complex for a visitor they come to us. We help readers with their projects, identifying sources, etc. It’s a little bit of all kinds of work.

(SM) But you also get the chance to curate exhibitions?

(CS) Oh yes and my colleagues do all kinds of podcasts and blogs, so there is this kind of outreach as you would call it. We publicize the collections. One colleague has poetry readings, another has a lecture series on the history of the book and we have conferences with academic departments at Yale. A lot of my colleagues also teach.

(SM) What are some of your favorite items in the collection?

(CS) I am a book person. I love old books. I suppose personally I love the botanical books, the old natural sciences.

(SM) So not always something in the German collection?

(CS) Oh no because I have worn so many hats there. One of the things I enjoyed most was the last exhibition I did Trees in Fact and Fable. So I basically exhibited illustrated books that showed trees. There is a really diverse collection of tree images in the collection. You never would have thought.

(SM)What do you think makes for a good exhibition?

(CS) To me, and this is just my opinion, is to have something that is visually interesting, something that grabs people. Some of our shows are highly intellectual, they are very specialized. A show, almost like a children’s book, can have two levels: it can have a very visually appealing level so the guy who walks off the street can understand it, but it can also have a deeper structure if someone wants to study and understand it. A good example is the show that is on right now Elements of Style: Fashion and Form at the Beinecke. Louise [Louise Bernard, Curator, Collection of American Literature] is a great scholar. She has just come to us from a faculty position and so she has really thought out stuff about textuality and how these objects relate to literary tradition. There is a really deep intellectual framework to what she had done, but you can walk in off the street and say, “wow, Muriel Draper’s hat and Gertrude Stein’s vest.” You can enjoy it without understanding all of the literary critical apparatus that gives it its shape. So I would always want to make a show that had popular appeal with a deeper structure.

(CS) Exhibitions at the Beinecke are a real challenge from an architectural point of view because we have two long cases and eighteen jewel cases. So if you want to have some kind of narrative in your exhibition it can be hard to divide it up between the cases, and some material just won’t fit.

(CS) The curved book cases were designed to exhibit the book collections of the two Beinecke brothers who were still living when the building opened. The north one had E.J. Beinecke’s Robert Louis Stevenson collection and on the other side F.W. Beinecke’s Western Americana collection. Those cases were made just for that. The lighting has been hard to adapt to any other use, because the light was meant come down and show off those rich bindings.

(SM) Is that the only way to show things, in cases? You could never build a temporary wall or make any other major intervention?

(CS) No, this has been a great difficulty especially to display things like framed art, which generally we now hang in the stack tower. It is not ideal because you have your painting hanging in front of the busy background of all those books.

(SM) How has your perception and the public’s perception of the building changed overtime?

(CS) Well in the great days of the revolution in the 60’s, that was the day of Vietnam and the invasion of Cambodia. It was a time when students were taking over universities and burning them down. That did not happen at Yale. We had a very good president [Kingman Brewster] who kept it stable. First of all, a lot of the agitation that took place happened at the Beinecke plaza and the Beinecke itself was seen as an emblem of authority, money and the ruling class . Conspicuous consumption. It was the emblem of what was wrong. The students had a hunger strike I remember and they camped under the eaves of the Beinecke. It must have been the summer of 68 or 69. The president came out of Woodbridge Hall across the way and gave each student a vitamin pill and shook their hand, and this was how he kept the lid on things at Yale.

(CS) We also suffered from this fortress like reputation. My principal boss, Ralph Franklin, he really made the place more democratic by recruiting students to work there which I think helped the students understand that you can go in there. Back when the Beinecke was conceived, it was like the Grolier Club, a club of upscale wealthy bibliophiles. The Beinecke was like that. A bunch of rich old guys. That perception changed in the 80’s because of students and more readers who came to the library. Now I think it is a focal point of the campus. We throw a good party, we even get requests for weddings.

(SM) The building was an architectural wonder of the time. Has that faded for you at all?

(CS) No but we have had many internal renovations.

(SM) Do you like the building?

(CS) On the outside, no. The inside is lovely. The times have changed and the way we do business has changed so we have had two very major renovations. To accommodate the things we do now, that they did not know we were going to do when the place was designed.

(SM) Like what, what sort of changes in use?

(CS) The people who planned the rare book library, what they did was collected rare books, one by one. Real bibliophile kinds of things, but over the years we have moved to buying complete archives, hundreds of boxes with pages and pages. Not only does it take up a lot of storage room, but it also takes up room to process. It’s difficult to find space to process hundreds of feet of paper. Also the collection and staff have grown. We have run out of space and have offsite storage now.

(SM) Do you ever feel like the building itself is a rare book?

(CS) People call it a treasure box or a jewelry box and I think that is rather true. I have always thought Sterling Library is like a church, the little telephone booths looking like confessionals, and you walk in and there is this altar with “our lady of the bowling ball” standing there [allegorical painting over the circulation desk]. It always seemed to me that the Beinecke book tower was like an altar. A secular altar for books. I think that is meant to be. You come in and you are awed by this tremendous façade of books.

(CS) What I really like about it, especially on a summer day when you are out there on the plaza and it is white and it is hot, and you come up to this building which looks horizontal, and walk in and suddenly it is dark and it’s cold and it’s vertical.

(BS) The building is limited but the online collections are opening up access to people who would have never come into the building.

(CS) It saves wear on books as well. We have some notorious things such as the Voynich manuscript. Have you heard of that? It’s debated how old it is. I think our estimate is 15th or 16th century. The latest German analysis puts it earlier. It’s a manuscript in cipher. It is all written in code and no one has ever cracked it. People think it tells the future of the world. We have always been flooded with requests about it, but now that it is digitized people can check it out for themselves. It’s probably just got recipes for cures and lotions, but it is very exotic looking.

(BS) So is there a Stieglitz collection, or is it only his correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe?

(CS) Oh it is going to be published. The year I curated the American literature, I substituted for a year; I just stood on the phone every single day explaining why people could not read the letters of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.

(BS) It was just opened two years ago?

(CS) Yes, Georgia restricted the letters until 25 years after her death. So anyway, I stood by the phone reading off Georgia O’Keefe’s will stating the letters have to remain sealed.

(SM) So nobody read them? Not even the curators?

Whether Donald Gallup read them before they got locked up – I remember them being in the basement in tall metal file cabinets with big padlocks on them. Whether Donald,the curator of American literature and a great friend of Georgia ever read them, I don’t know. No, they were under lock and key. You have to be very careful and about respecting wishes.

(CS) We have photographs too. There is the famous wastebasket collection. Stieglitz was making prints and throwing them away, and Georgia rescued them from the wastebasket. So it’s called the wastebasket collection. She gave it to us with the stipulation that it would never ever be publically displayed.

(BS) It is an interesting record of things. What he did not find interesting or good enough. That is great for research.

(SM) So it will never be publically displayed but can be viewed for research purposes?

(CS) Yes.

(SM) Are there any other items that were off-limits that similar moment of unveiling?

(CS) Ah yes, the diaries of Carl Van Vechten. He was a gentleman who lived in New York City. He was a novelist, a minor novelist, and amateur photographer of great skill. He also fostered the Harlem Renaissance. He was white, he was Dutch, but he took on and sponsored black writers and artists. He photographed these black artists too. It’s very famous.

(CS) Well Uncle Carlo as we call him (laughs). The Beinecke is a place of great references. There is also Uncle Al (Stieglitz) and Ex Po is Ezra Pound. That comes from a little ditty by Joyce-- no T.S. Elliot.

(CS) There was a sealed batch of stuff from Van Vechten that was not to be opened for 25 years after his death or whatever, and the curator was very excited. What was this going to be? Was this going to be the rest of the diaries, some of which were at the New York Public Library? He was so excited about it and there came the great day when we opened it. It was all these scrap books, and it seems that Uncle Carlo was mightily attracted to sailors. Ta-da! There were all these scrap books with cut out pictures of sailors. Alas, it wasn’t the diaries.

(CS) I’ve had stuff in the German collection though. Author Hermann Broch, whom you are not expected to know. He was an Austrian novelist. He was a gentleman with many mistresses, and one of his lady friends was Hannah Arendt. She gave a bunch of stuff, and it was sealed until the death of Broch’s second wife, and of course everyone wanted to see it. So the wife died and we opened the thing. Well it was all of Hannah’s correspondence with the wife. Sometimes you get disappointed. There is too much hype around those things. We try not to accept things with restrictions now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Raimund Abraham

One of our favorite architects, Raimund Abraham, passed away earlier this week. Thank you to Justin Fowler for sharing the below reflections on his life and work.

“All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil and the desire to make architecture.”

Austrian-turned New York architect Raimund Abraham recently passed away after his car collided with a Los Angeles city bus. He had just delivered a lecture at SCI-Arc entitled, “The Profanation of Solitude.” A disciple of John Hejduk at Cooper Union, Abraham was perhaps the most uncompromising figure in contemporary architecture, willing to argue for the critical sanctity of the discipline against all forms of corruption. His penchant for fedoras, cigars and sublimely apocalyptic drawings brought him insider acclaim, yet often put him at the margins of a field that has by now largely sought to abandon its critical mandate in favor of getting things built by whatever means necessary.

Abraham won his largest commission, the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, by appealing directly to the Austrian parliament in 1996. As he later recounted in the New York Times, “The Austria that I respect and admire is the Austria of the early 20th century, the Austria of Wittgenstein, the Austria that built the most radical housing projects in the world. This is the Austria I celebrate with my building and with my symbolic, very personal protest.” In a similar act of protest, Abraham adopted a U.S. citizenship when Jörg Haider assumed power in Austria in 2000. Such a move, is of course, rare in a global culture of architectural production where many of today’s leading practitioners are more than willing to provide window-dressing for dubious regimes. In many respects, Abraham’s code of conduct was one of negation as a form of preservation, abandoning his country of birth in order to save the memory of its history and its potential; and resisting architecture’s current trajectory in order to retain the autonomy of the discipline.

Self-conscious legend, unapologetic combatant, and a supremely gifted visual craftsman, Abraham made his home within the void from which so many architects have tiptoed away.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Idlewild Airport

This treasure was found between the pages of an old book this week. The postcard shows the customs facilities at Idlewild Airport (now JFK). The caption on the back describes the "streamlined" customs process at the "36 supermarket-type checkout counters". I can't decide if I am more impressed by the short lines or the luminous ceiling?

More historic photography of the airport here.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Plastics Euphoria

Are balloons the new symbol of optimism in architecture? During the last few weeks several proposals have been unveiled that resemble or include balloons. It is a little different too than the history of pneumatic structures we normally think of (Kenzo Tange & Frei Otto in Antarctica, Reyner Banham's Un-house or pavilions at the Osaka Expo), since in many of the examples below the balloons have a more symbolic function.

MAD proposal for "Contemplating the Void".

DS+R for Hirshhorn (The least balloon-like from a semiotics standpoint or maybe not?)

SO-IL at PS1

BIG at PS1

My favorite: The Townshift Competition proposal by Paisajes Emergentes. More poetic zeppelin than exuberant childhood relic.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Salton Sea Opera

If you have a copy of GSD Platform 2, the annual tome of student work produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, then you may have come across a project for the Salton Sea Opera pictured above. The project, the work of graduate student Erin Kasimow, was completed as part of a studio organized last year by Mack Scogin. In line with the studio concept students were asked to select a site, and in response the instructor selected a program.

Salton Sea is a lake in California that is more than 35 miles long and fraught with all the melodrama that one would associate with opera. The lake as it stands today was created in 1905 when a swell in the Colorado River over ran the Alamo Canal and filled in a sink over a period of two years. During the 1920’s the area became a tourist attraction as well as a fishery and home to several species of migratory birds. Over time however, the lack of outflow at the lake produced high levels of salinity, which when coupled with industrial run off, has killed local wildlife and turned much of the lake’s perimeter into a wasteland.

The project is compelling in its success at registering the contradictions, conditions and story of the place. Located on an island in the north edge of the lake, the building is sited at the mouth of the Alamo River, the same river which created the lake, but also delivers its toxic levels of salt and chemical run off.

The figure of the building resembles the remains of a squatting prehistoric bird or some other strange creature which might have once occupied the site. The form and program are organized around a centralized fly tower, from which the primary auditorium and several auxiliary performance spaces are suspended in a careful compositional balance – an idea which is interesting given the lake’s constant state of flux.

An exaggerated series of ramps traverse the volumes and allow visitors to oscillate between the experience of the site and the experience of opera, effectively conflating the two. There is an interesting tension here in that from the exterior the building functions as an image as bizarre as the lake itself, yet the interior experience of the building is focused on the performance of opera and viewing the site, and to some extent erodes our awareness of the building at all.

Like other opera houses the project is a beacon, but rather than symbolizing urban or cultural renewal, the Salton Sea Opera is a carefully calibrated reflection of place.

Metropolis Restored

The recently restored scenes from Metropolis debuted to a snowy Berlin last Friday. More from Der Spiegel:

"After 83 years, Fritz Lang's Sci-Fi classic "Metropolis" has returned to Berlin in its full glory. On Friday night 2,000 fans braved the snowy weather to watch the restored classic at the Brandenburg Gate. It took restorers a year to repair the damage to the newly discovered scenes. They say the original film was much more complex and interesting than just a sci-fi cult classic."

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Architecture For a Cold Day

The Walking Igloo, The Architectural Forum, April 1968

"This eight-legged tortoise is a glass-fiber igloo designed by Architects Cohos, DeLesalle & Evamy of Calgary, Alberta, and manufactured there. It weights all of 480 lbs., which comes to 2/3 lb. per cu. ft. of space enclosed. This particular model is made of 12 orangepeel-shaped sections that can be bolted together in 90 minutes to form a shelter 14 ft. in diameter and 7.5 ft. tall at the center. Other models are lengthened by the use of straight, intermediate sections; and there is a super-igloo currently going up at the North Pole that will house helicopters. It measures 76 ft. long and 17.5 ft. high, and weighs 6,000 lbs. The igloos come in bright colors, and the shells are translucent".