ASHBERY BRIDGE.

I discovered (via wood s lot, as I discover so many things) that the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis has a poem by John Ashbery inscribed across the upper lintel. Here‘s Edward Byrne’s post about it at One Poet’s Notes; he links to a very nice slide show of photos of the successive bits of the (untitled) poem on the bridge and quotes the whole thing:

And now I cannot remember how I would
have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new.
Driving us to say what we are thinking.
It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.
This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea
and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.

It’s not a great poem, but it must be a wonderful thing to experience as you walk across the bridge—something that at one point, according to a comment at Byrne’s post, Siah Armajani, the designer of the bridge, didn’t want people to be able to do: “I remember reading once that Siah had originally conceived of the bridge as only the span portion, with no stairs or ramp to ascend and cross it. He was interested, as the article I read quoted him, in ‘the concept of a bridge,’ rather than an actual functional bridge. According to the account, the local neighborhood association pressed the city to require that the bridge be crossable, not merely ornamental.” I hope it’s not true; I hate that kind of pseudo-artistic arrogance, the “Tilted Arc” controversy being the locus classicus of this sort of thing: “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people,” eh? It better be when you’re blocking people’s way to work with it, bucko.

Comments

  1. I propose the following John Berryman poem be inscribed on the future John Berryman Bridge across the Mississippi in Minneapolis:
    “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
    After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
    we ourselves flash and yearn,
    and moreover my mother told me as a boy
    (repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
    means you have no
    Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
    inner resources, because I am heavy bored.”
    John, by the way, as we all know, utilized a Minneapolis bridge to finally end his boredom.
    thegrowlingwolf
    PS: my grandmother was afraid of bridges.

  2. I always like to walk around in Leiden because there are poems inscribed on a lot of walls, see http://www.muurgedichten.nl/wallpoems.html. It’s especially nice to see all the different languages and writing systems.

  3. bertil: That’s great, I’ll have to visit Leiden and see them.
    thegrowlingwolf: I hate to say it, but the Ashbery poem could be read as an invitation to suicide: “It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand/ and think of going no further./ And it is good when you get to no further…”

  4. LH
    Yeah, that’s great Ashbery–Bridges being invitations to suicide…I’ll drink to that.
    thegrowlingwolf

  5. John Emerson says:

    Damn. Growler got there first, with exactly the same Berryman poem I was thinking of. He’s a sick man, I tell you.
    Minneapolis is where the bridge itself falls down and kills you. Surely someone could write a poem appropriate to that too.
    And part of Hart Crane’s poem on the Brooklyn Bridge, even though it was a boat he jumped off of.

  6. I love all this: the slideshow, the poem and the bridge. I was wondering only the other day what had happened to Siah Armajani. I remember some beautiful pieces he did out of mahogany and aluminum around 1980. You can see the range of his work starting here.
    “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people,” eh? It better be when you’re blocking people’s way to work with it, bucko.
    Boy, I always hated Tilted Arc and I agree (partly because I was always late for work), but there’s also a niggling doubt in my mind that it was, to an extent, possibly subversive in a good way too (any piece of sculpture that makes the whole City of New York apoplectic can’t be all bad).
    However, I don’t think it’s fair to link Siah Armajani’s work with Tilted Arc & Richard Serra (whose recent Paris exhibition I actually liked quite a lot). I think it would be great to build a bridge whose structure is half-suspension and half-arch and then say that it was a piece to look at rather than to cross. What you’re possibly concerned about is a community that needed a bridge and narrowly avoided the city spending the bridge money on a piece of art instead. That’s not a good reason to think you’ve got to worry about pseudo-artistic arrogance on the part of Siah Armajani. He’s a good artist; he mixes different materials and bits of technology in unusual ways and lets us see things for what they are rather than what their function is.

  7. John Emerson says:

    Serra’s arrogance was just another case of professional arrogance. I think that in the case of MDs a bit of arrogance is justified, up to a point, but I don’t see it at all in art, for various reasons. And even in medicine arrogance can have bad consequences.

  8. Bridges being invitations to suicide…I’ll drink to that.
    In that case someone should inscribe it on the Golden Gate.

  9. in the case of MDs a bit of arrogance is justified, up to a point, but I don’t see it at all in art, for various reasons
    I’d be interested to hear your reasons.

  10. John Emerson says:

    Quite a few bridges are non-pedestrian for various mostly-bad reasons, but in general I think that it’s just wrong to build a non-pedestrian bridge where a pedestrian bridge would be used. Also, I don’t think that annoying people is really a positive function of art, or subversive in any real, non-annoying way, and certainly shouldn’t be regarded as a positive function of public art.

  11. Annoying people … shouldn’t be regarded as a positive function of public art.
    Sure, I agree, but then I am an old farty person, as my family keeps telling me.

  12. John Emerson says:

    Suppose an MD says “Look, you have diabetes, if you don’t control it you’ll take decades off your life, and I don’t care what the quack told you.” He’d be right in that case (an actual case I know of), and he’s right in a pretty consequential way justifying the sharp tone.
    I can’t imagine anything comparable in art — either the rightness, or the consequentiality. I don’t think that artists can’t say much more than “This is obviously not for you” or “Look at it from this point of view and maybe you’ll like it better” or finally something like “Fuck you. I hate you and your kind.”
    Some of the recent debates made annoyingness (“transgressivity”) both a necessary and a sufficient criterion for art, which is silly. I think of that stuff as a kind of chic anti-kitsch for a particular population, sort of like garden gnome kitsch for another, larger population.*
    When Nerval and the bousingots started doing transgressive, opaque stuff during the 1830′s, it was really something. All during the 19thc the tradition grew, but by 1920 or so it had culminated, and ever afterwards the avant garde was at risk of becoming a genteel subsidized academic genre.
    The art world had a political connection which they thought made them invulnerable, but even the Tweed Ring can’t always protect you.
    In music Irving Babbitt (probably no relation to Sinclair Lewis’s character or to Irving Babbit) pioneered this attitude during the 50s, but even he did not deliberately try to annoy people on their way to work. He just asserted that music had crossed a professionalization threshold which required a specialized audience like the audience for mathematics. (It seems a consequence of this argument that people like Bach and Mozart were hybrid precursors of advanced music, by no means contemptible but crippled by their need to please people.)
    * Incidentally, Kurt Goedel’s wife collected garden gnomes. Goedel preferred American to Viennese pop, much less classical music, and was a centrist in American politics, in which he took considerable interest.

  13. John Emerson says:

    A peculiar sidelight: art objects are now entangled in a sort of speculative bubble related to tax evasion. Pieces will be overvalued upon donation for tax purposes, and then their value will be inflated by fictitious sales which are really the barter of watered stock: museum A will accept a donation nominally valued at $10,000,000, sell it a little later to museum B for $20,000,000, and immediately buy a piece from museum B for $20,000,000. (It’s unlikely that it’s ever quite as blatant as that, but that’s the mechanism.)

  14. John Emerson says:

    Serra had a political connection which he thought made him invulnerable, but even the Tweed Ring can’t always protect you.
    In music Milton Babbitt (probably no relation to Sinclair Lewis’s character or to Irving Babbit)….

  15. Yes, Languagehat! Come to Leiden, and stop under the poem by Marina Tsvetaeva. If you lift your hat to her I’ll know it is you.

  16. he’s right in a pretty consequential way justifying the sharp tone.
    Okay, so what you’re calling arrogance I’ll call bossiness. Serra, in making Tilted Arc (once again, I didn’t like the piece), was just as consequentially bossy as the diabetes doctor. I don’t believe he had any interest in being ‘annoying’ for the sake of it. As a modernist, he probably likes to question things (e.g. “plazas”, humanist rectangular gathering places, the building of which allow you to add a few extra stories on your gridded-city, gridded-skyscraper). He may want you to question your robotlike route to work every day. He may not have been completely successful, but I don’t think he was just trying to annoy people. For one thing ‘annoying’ is too passive a position, and he’s too bossy and arrogant to want to be seen that way.

  17. John Emerson says:

    OK, in addition the doctor’s bossiness was consequential in a positive way, whereas Serra’s bossiness was consequential in a meaningless, stupid, malicious way.
    It was like saying “conventional people smooth roads so that they can go where they want to go, but I introduce obstacles.” Does he also say “conventional people eat tasty food, but I always put a little gravel and mud in my ragout”?
    The fact that it was government-funded and promoted by the usual processes of log-rolling, influence-peddling and pressure-group politics makes it worse for me. I think that people are often correct to think that government is controlled by a coalition of miscellaneous elitists who’ve figured out how to successfully work the system, and who basically despise their audience.
    Yeah, I’m old and white and male, but not dead yet.

  18. As a modernist, he probably likes to question things (e.g. “plazas”, humanist rectangular gathering places, the building of which allow you to add a few extra stories on your gridded-city, gridded-skyscraper). He may want you to question your robotlike route to work every day.
    Questioning things is fine. Getting people to question their route to work, their work itself, and life in general is fine… so long as you don’t impose it on them. If you’re forcing them to “question their route to work” by putting a big ugly piece of metal in their way, you’re just another jerk abusing power to push other people around, in my view. The reason architects and those sculptors who work in forms large enough to be dangerous are different from, say, painters and writers is that their arrogance has real-world consequences that the common folk can’t escape; the idiot who builds a library without regard for users or books, say, goes off chortling over his fat bank balance and his impressive resume, while a generation or two suffer from his pretentions.
    But don’t mind me, I’m an anarchist with a chip on my shoulder about people being pushed around in the name of art or anything else.

  19. I hate Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, too.

  20. Gris is of course “pig” in Norwegian, and I admire Corbusier’s work almost as much as I love pigs and much more than I like his writing about architecture or his influence on 20th century modernism.
    The reason architects and those sculptors who work in forms large enough to be dangerous are different from, say, painters and writers is that their arrogance has real-world consequences that the common folk can’t escape…
    Besides Tilted Arc I can’t think of any contemporary example of a sculpture that the common folk can’t escape, but we all know the story of de Maupassant eating his lunch underneath the Eiffel Tower in order to escape its profile on the city’s skyline. I can’t see much difference between Parisians who felt oppressed by their new tower and New Yorkers who had to walk round Tilted Arc. Given another twenty years, everyone would have gotten all teary-eyed about that damn thing too. The commuters being forced to walk around it seems to be a non-argument. If a commuter has to walk round one more thing on the way to work, in addition to the cars & buildings and so on, it’s just saying that a functioning piece of machinery or an office block is more acceptable than a piece of ‘art’, and even that is possibly only because nobody knows how to get rid of the other things.
    the idiot who builds a library without regard for users or books, say, goes off chortling over his fat bank balance and his impressive resume, while a generation or two suffer from his pretentions.
    You don’t give any examples, though perhaps you’re talking about the Beinecke, given its reputation and that you were at Yale. I have never met an architect who chortled, and certainly not over his bank balance. Which is not to say that all architects are as poor as I am. Gordon Bunshaft is notorious in the world of architecture for having been one of the biggest assholes in the history of the job; nevertheless I’m certain he felt he was building the best library in modern history and that the services that his firm, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, provided the University with — these probably included writing the programme for the building’s functions — were outstanding.
    If you both want to criticise Tilted Arc, or the Beinecke — or any other — Library, or Siah Armajani’s intention to build an unusable bridge then stick to criticising the piece of work itself and lay off speculating about the creator’s bad character, it’s really not relevant. Honestly.
    But I do think that James Joyce was trying to pull a fast one. I couldn’t understand a word. It cost me a fortune buying Ulysses and I wasted hours and hours on it. He must have laughed all the way to the bank.

  21. SnowLeopard says:

    I find it interesting that it seems to be the architect or sculptor who is held to account for these public monstrosities, as I gather them to be, rather than the public agencies or private individuals who paid for it all. Architects need to earn a living, too, and have fickle customers to satisfy. Growing up in an architect’s household, I was always struck by how much my father had to cater to the caprices of school boards, public gatherings, and bureaucrats and how little discretion he actually had to design a structure as he saw fit. But maybe celebrity architects lead a different sort of existence and can command the public coffers in a way the rest of us don’t.

  22. John Emerson says:

    I was mostly thinking about the Art in Public Places thing generally, rather than architecture specifically. But it seems to me that architects should expect to be expected to take the needs and wishes of the public into account, even though painters and sculptors have complete artistic freedom. (Or as I’ve said elsewhere — Leonardo didn’t have to put toilets in the Mona Lisa, but things are different for architects are.

  23. You don’t give any examples, though perhaps you’re talking about the Beinecke
    No, I quite like the Beinecke—I was thinking of that library recently built in Paris where the books are exposed to daylight. Sorry, didn’t mean to step on your professional toes; I’m quite willing to concede I don’t know enough about the subject to have informed opinions.

  24. Oh, and also the Art and Architecture building at Yale, notorious for its unusability and recently remodeled at considerable expense to undo some of the bad elements.

  25. J. W. Brewer says:

    There is or was an oral tradition in New Haven (not necessarily factually reliable) that the design of the Beinecke did not come from Bunschaft’s ego or the functional needs of the project but, in the grand old artistic tradition of servile sucking up to patrons, is a subtle allusion to the source of the Beinecke fortune (S&H Green Stamps).
    But I would think most people who’ve spent time in New Haven in the last four decades and change would sign on to the consensus that the most aesthetically hideous structure on the Yale campus is, appropriately enough, the one that houses the School of Architecture. There’s a story on its recent alleged rehabilation which collects lots of hilariously incendiary quotes here: http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2008_11/aanda.html. There are even more good quotes (including some de gustibus non est . . . positive things) in the letters to the editor that followed the hard-copy publication of the article, which the website is smart enough to just append to the bottom of the webpage version of the article. But to tie back to Berriman at the top of this thread, the most moving letter is that from Bob Parker (whom I knew a little bit, way back when) for whom the aesthetic and utilitarian dysfunctionality of the building is overshadowed by memories of a suicide.

  26. Architects need to earn a living, too, and have fickle customers to satisfy. I agree with what you say. However, it hinges on the idea that architects provide a service rather than a product. That is often convenient for legal purposes, but in my heart I think that the buck stops with the architect.
    didn’t mean to step on your professional toes
    In my opinion professional toes are there to be stepped on. Everyone is entitled to have views on art and architecture, although there’s usually nothing as vitriolic as what has already been said by artists and architects. They love a good punch up.
    Although Leonardo didn’t put toilets in the Mona Lisa, it’s surprising that Marcel Duchamp didn’t give it a try.
    J. W. Brewer, thank you for that article from the Yale magazine. I liked Gwathmey’s addition in the pictures, though I haven’t seen it in the flesh. When I was a student in the late seventies I remember us all staring at Paul Rudolph when he appeared on a jury, the poor man was being treated like a war criminal by that time. With the exception of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, to design an architecture school is professional suicide; it’s like giving your novel to an elevator full of literary critics and stopping them between floors for a week.

  27. I was thinking of that library recently built in Paris where the books are exposed to daylight.

    I recall hearing something along those lines about the Bibliothèque nationale. Was that the one you meant, Hat? The Wikipedia article doesn’t mention the problems, but googling I found e.g. this.

  28. Yes, that’s the one.

  29. Ah, the Ashbery bridge! I’d never heard of it until I was in Minneapolis a few years ago for a conference, and a bunch of us decided to go to the sculpture garden on the other side of it. “Hey, there’s a poem on this bridge!” said one of my friends. I was delighted to see Ashbery’s name when we reached the end of it.
    By the way, the poem is on both sides of the bridge, going in both directions, so you can read it in sequence no matter which way you’re going. My favorite thing about it is the way the line “It is fair to be crossing, to have crossed” is where the poem crosses itself in the middle, as it were. It’s also more or less the midpoint on the bridge.

  30. That’s great to know, Amand. Good for John Ashbery, doing that! Sometimes even photographs aren’t going to tell you the whole story.

  31. That’s great to know, Amand. Good for John Ashbery, doing that! Sometimes even photographs aren’t going to tell you the whole story.

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Tim May:

    I recall hearing something along those lines about the Bibliothèque nationale. Was that the one you meant, Hat? The Wikipedia article doesn’t mention the problems, but googling I found e.g. this.

    The French Wikipedia article has more. Judging from that and your other link most of the criticism today is concerned with its public service functions. Important enough, but it doesn’t support the notion that the library was built with no regard for the books. The criticism during construction was the usual not-necessarily relevant (but politically opportune and headline-making) scandal-mongering that follows a high-profile public work. There’s a summary mention of criticism of the architect for placing the books in the towers, but no hint to the reason. The daylight blinding that was mocked in the link seems to me as a fair attempt to meet both the emploees’ need for daylight and the books’ need for shadow. In this case I would think that the (small but important) risk of having the basement filled with sequanatic fluid made the usual solution unacceptable, so the architect’s choice of the towers may be an answer to the task of designing a library in the wrong place. A valid criticism, then, but not of the architect. As a structural engineer I have professional objections to placing heavy loads far away from the foundations, but that’s merely a question of money (and space) spent on the supporting system.
    On the wider question of architecture and art in public places, I think it’s more about clearly defining the scope of the project, and of making clear to the artist that the artwork must be adaptable to future needs. Artists work well with exploring limitations. In Norway there’s been policy for a couple of decades to spend a percentage of the project cost of public works on “artistic decoration”. In my projects for public sector clients I’ve seen both brilliant and bad architecture, and I’ve seen both brilliant and bad arts. The best art is smoothly integrated in the design of the building or public place, and the artist knows that future changes may affect his work, like an architect who knows that he designs living objects. The worst pieces of art are simply placed somewhere in total disregard of maintenance costs or the future needs of the client. But I do find that some of the bad examples are due to a wish to keep the artist out of the project at large.

  33. Thanks, Trond Engen; it’s always good to hear from someone who knows more than I do. Very enlightening.

  34. John Emerson says:

    “Sequanatic” is a hapax legomenon of the entire internet, which is pretty gol darn hapax.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    Language Hat: Thank you, but I’m a dangerous source of enlightenment. I know something of smallscale projects in a small town in a small country, read a few paragraphs from a couple of websites, and extrapolate like crazy.
    John Emerson: Call me the hapax lego man. (It would’ve been so much better if I’d been the first to use it).

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