Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


The Last Word BY THOM NICKELS ICON MAGAZINE JUNE 2012 Thom Nickels Rarely if ever does the design of a new prison get the attention of the architectural community. What usually happens is that old, abandoned prisons get noticed but for quite different reasons. Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, for instance, was built in 1896 and designed by an architectural firm, Wilson Brothers & Company, whose name sounds more like a shoe manufacturer than a reputable architect on the order of, say, John Haviland, who designed Eastern State Penitentiary. In general, architects of note seem to rarely design prisons, almost as if they find the whole process counter-inspirational. The Holmesburg design copied the layout of Eastern State Penitentiary, especially the way the lighting of individual prison cells came through sun light slits in each cell roof. Holmesburg’s fieldstone walls have a foreboding and medieval look, and the prison’s spoke and wheel design radiates outward Eastern State style, a kind of Mandela or stone sun radiating not light but rays of appalling conditions, like abuse and torture. Holmesburg, of course, was a prison steeped in scandal, going back to 1922 when The Evening Public Ledger called it “the worst prison in the United States.” This summing up practically duplicates Charles Dickens’ comments on ESP when he toured it in 1842. The small and otherwise quaint town of Holmesburg took a particularly hard beating from Philadelphia when it was selected as the dumping ground for incarcerated undesirables. Up the street from Holmesburg Prison is the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Two buildings in such close proximity give a good portion of the town the look of a barbed wire camp. This is no Neiman Marcus strip mall. No doubt the people of Holmesburg never wanted their town to be a force field for medical testing in the 1950s, when University of Penn dermatologist Albert Kligman, got the green light to test radioactive isotopes on unsuspecting convicts, or when the CIA did their part when they tested psychotropic drugs on prisoners. Prisons designed today may not have the look of ESP, but what happens when architect-designers start acting like sociologists? How do you build a chic prison that would make prisoners feel better about themselves than those poor souls in Holmesburg? Is it possible to design something that would make everyone wish they were incarcerated there? Two students from the Penn School of Design, Andreas Tjeldflaat and Greg Knobloch, set about doing just this. Their goal was to design an alternative to traditional prisons in the United States. Called the 499.Summit – Skytropolis, the final design of this new urban penitentiary includes three towers in the shape of an arch, with each arch symbolizing incarceration, transformation, and integration. ‘Static’ is something the design is not. The circulatory feel of the proposed structure is an illusion because it is really something akin to frozen treachery on the verge of unfreezing and lashing out, a sort of pit bull Cyclops or a robotic cop straight out of George Orwell’s Ministry of Love (1984). It is clearly evident that the architects have never known or visited someone in prison. The implied mission statement of the design is that it would reduce reacvidism because of the symbolic flow of the “healing” of the building’s circulatory parts (symbolizing transformation and integration) that resemble monstrous human appendages. Skytropolis is nothing but an academic exercise in dark satire. Where has anyone read that exterior spaces can work interior changes in the lives of prisoners? Buildings may soothe, comfort and provide a sense of aesthetic pleasure, but to say that they can change internal physiognomy is delusional. If anything, this towering, cold design does little to produce feelings of peace and happiness, especially the all-seeing eye lens screen at the top, which ought to have a flashing neon sign reading: A college example of spectacle over substance. *** EXCESSIVE PEDOPHILE SPOTTING In Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio, there’s a story called Hands that speaks to a certain mood in the nation today. That crisis is called extreme Predator Spotting. Can you spot a predator? In Anderson’s story the main character is not really a predator; he’s someone who has been mistaken as a predator because as a school teacher he had been a little too free with his hands. A lonely man of quiet power, as a school teacher Adolph Meyer would think nothing of caressing the shoulders or the tussled hair of his male students in order to give them encouragement. Sexual abuse was not on this man’s mind, but one day one of the students, plagued by a forbidden fantasy, accuses Meyer of using his hands for other things. Without benefit of a trial or hearing, the townspeople beat and attempt to hang Meyer, forcing him to move to another town and change his name. In a nation (and world) heavily tarnished by child sex abuse, it is understandable if Predator Spotting (PS) has gotten out of hand. After all, look at Jerry Sandusky: athletic coach, all American family man, and churchgoer. When the Penn State crises erupted students and residents there were shocked that a respected pillar of the community—a married heterosexual man-- was being branded as a pedophile. That shock expressed itself in countless interviews with students and residents trying to make sense out of the accusations, and attempting to piece together the allegations with the man they thought they knew. Once a pillar of the community, Sandusky didn’t fit the stereotype, but the Penn State folks, if they’d been up on the subject, would have realized that the classic predator is not “detectable” at all: there’s no Oscar Wilde flamboyance, no lavender perfume. While it’s a good thing that real cases of child sex abuse continue to be prosecuted, has the attention given to this issue over the last ten years has now led to an era of overcompensation? Are we entering a fever pitch era where “any cost” could mean a kind of Orwellian overreach? Consider a recent suspension of a Delaware County Catholic school principal after a “safe environment” training course was implemented in the school. The trainer no doubt went into St. Madeline-St. Rose parish school with good intentions. The mission was to elaborate on appropriate boundaries between students and teachers. In some presentations like this, one can easily imagine a trainer asking the students to review in their mind what they have experienced from teachers that made them feel uncomfortable. One can visualize this as a test question that students feel obligated to answer. “Reach!” the trainer may have said, “Can you tell me if any boundaries were broken? Think! Think!” According to news reports, a few kids raised their hands and pinpointed the principal. They complained that “he did things to make them feel uncomfortable.” The Predator Spotting Alarm then went off. A private huddle among administrators followed, and then the kids are brought into a room and questioned. A female student said that the principal put the manufacturer’s tag back in her shirt. A male student said that the principal put a wet finger in his ear. Other male students complained that the principal entered the restroom when they were there. As a result of these accusations, the principal was put on leave while police and the DA investigated the charges, which in the end were dismissed. Meanwhile, the professional reputation of the principle lies in ruins. He may be transferred to another school but wherever he goes there will be a cloud of suspicion over his head. Administrators won’t hire him for another school because of his controversial background. Supporters of high velocity PS will say that this is a small price to pay for the thousands of children who continue to be abused nationwide. That’s an easy thing to say when it’s not your reputation or future on the line. My eight years in a Catholic grammar school and four years in a public high school entailed many encounters with teachers who made me feel uncomfortable. The nuns, for instance thought nothing of walking into the Boys Room when they felt that the boys were in there too long. Looking back, I was ear lobe pinched, ruler slapped, and made to clap erasers, and these were the comfortable experiences. .


ICON MAGAZINE City Beat June 2012 Thom Nickels Not long ago when you wanted to “make friends” with a neighbor in a CC high rise you had to put a mash note under their door or break the “custody of the eyes” rule in elevators. The Friends of the Avenue of the Arts has a solution to this: wine and pizza soirees in the lobbies of apartment buildings. As an organization of CC residents and businesses committed to making the Avenue of the Arts a boulevard of dreams, Friends hosted a party in the lobby of the Arts Condo building on Locust Street recently… in the mix, CFO Timothy J. Moir talked about June’s Art on the Avenue preview (June 20th, 5:30 Pm-8:00PM) at the University of the Arts’ Dorrance Hamilton Hall, where CC high rise neighbors will learn about the city’s many arts organizations. RSVP to: … .Decades ago, bed hair poet Ezra Pound wondered, ‘What makes money make money?” May I suggest the United States Mint? Touring the Mint might be seen by some as on a par with visiting the Liberty Bell (Tourist 101), or standing with those folks from Omaha while waiting to walk through Independence Hall. But how many Philadelphians knew that the Mint has been closed since January for renovations? The Grand Opening planned for sometime this summer (Bilderberg Group not invited!) promises “new” hands-on interactions, updated exhibits and videos, but no free money. Warning: this Orwellian Age being what it is, the Mint wants visitors to know that “members of the general public wishing to tour the facility may be subject to search by the U.S. Mint police.” (Note: pepper spray = peppermint cops) Overexposure is not Tanaholic: Ven and Vaida Gallery at18 South 3rd Street has been in City Beat a lot lately, yet Philly artist Tara Robertson’s photography show (June 1 to July1), Our Alphabet!, is a compilation of over 50 framed photographs designed to help “LGBTQ people use their voice to put their stories and message out there for the world to see in a non-confrontational way.” (Any guesses as to the next letter added to LGBTQ?)…. Also on the V&V vine: just when you thought you heard the last of Butch Cadora, he’s back like the Lockness Monster with a new project called “HOT and Busted,” a series of 20 authentic mug shots of handsome young criminals Cadora says he got from police websites and mug shots (along with descriptions of their crimes) after “a very, very close friend” went to jail last year for two (2) DUI’s inside of six months. About the July 6th thru September 2nd show, Cadora says: “Drawn on these youthful faces are the vernal stresses of their arrest and the realization that their (alleged) transgressions may potentially ruin their future…” Hollywood screen tests don’t get any better than this… Addresses of the incarcerated will not be provided. Never place your affection on a green growin’ tree, but give your love to Philly’s largest riverfront green space, Bartram’s Gardens. BG was green before the color became au courant. Once home to botanist John Bartram, the National Historic Landmark hosted 39,000 visitors last year… this spring, a new green, nursery and farm was unveiled on the venerable estate. Summertime visitors will now be able to borrow binoculars for bird watching (no voyeurism, thank you) as well as watercolors for painting. Educated tour guides will tell you what’s what. For a detailed look at this Philadelphia treasure, go to: The James Joyce of children’s authors, Rosenbach supporter, trustree, and children’s author Maurice Sendak, died last month. The museum’s special tribute to Sendak, From Pen to Publisher (June 24 to July 15), will follow the lifeline of three of the artist’s books. Sendak’s death gives new meaning to this year’s Bloomsday, Saturday, June 16, when the 2000 block of Delancey Street shuts down for a 7 hour public reading of Joyce’s Ulysses, where Molly Bloom’s “…And yes I said yes I will Yes,” never changes…. What’s in a name change? The Fairmount Park Art Association is now the Association for Public Art (aPA). Originally named and founded in 1872 to “enhance Fairmont Park with sculpture,” the new name sums up the organization’s wider urban mission of supporting public art everywhere in Philadelphia. aPA’s Laura Griffith spilled the beans about the change at last month’s Preservation Alliance Awards. aPAs inaugural exhibit will include 24 robotic searchlights along a half mile section of the Parkway, enough to create grand 3-D light sculptures (but no UFOs) called Open Air (sans Terry Gross). Look for this in September. Graffiti speaks (not on my wall you don’t): Glochester City, New Jersey-born artist (and fedora-wearing) John Baccile, UofArts grad is out promoting his new exhibition, “Signs and Wonders: Graffiti That Speaks” at CafĂ© Twelve on S. 12th Street in June. Baccile, a private pilot who once photographed the Eagles cheerleader tryouts while on the ground, has a site called Baccile’s only deviancy is that he’s a good artist. Meet me at the POP-UP boutique and I’ll show you Brian Campbell (see the Mural Arts Muralmorphosis animation on YouTube) one of the co-founders of P.A.D, or Philadelphia Art & Design along with designer Kevin McLaughlin and Kim Alsbrooks, a painter of miniature oils on found objects. Art is everywhere, so save those recyclables.