The Ache of An Old Wound or Some Such Nonsense



This week’s issue is a) lengthy and b) about nostalgia formation and cultural preservation (with a bonus contribution from Dame Sophie’s DAD!). This topic may not thrill you as it does us, in which case: no problem. We will be back to our usual mix of Internet Treasures next week.

For now, we offer you instead our finest springy Spotify playlists, and a dive into our archives. Would madam prefer an introduction to hygge? Perhaps sir would enjoy some charming Halloween spookiness instead? We desire only your reading happiness.

ALSO: If your copy of this newsletter arrives with broken links, please scroll to the bottom for assistance and let us know so we can nudge the good people at TinyLetter about it.

WILL We Ever Ache For Brutalism?: Bossy Thoughts About Nostalgia Formation 

This week, another in our series of Bossy Takes, where we discuss in depth a topic that’s been at the center of many of our conversations lately. It turns out that we have many, varied thoughts on nostalgia: the purposes it serves in our culture, what aspects of the culture enjoy the golden glow of fond reminiscence and longing before others, and how a given era moves in our collective imagination from “ugh, THAT era” to “aw, that era was pretty great!”
Sophie: The thing that kicked this off for me was an inescapable pattern over the last year: our local oldies station rebranded itself as Your Favorites From The 60s, 70s, & 80s, and some songs from the 80s had snuck on to the playlists at the local Classic Rock station, too. THEN, the all-classics soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy was a super-mega smash. And just a few weeks ago, a local alternative public radio station held a Solid Gold Hits of the 70s weekend, where they played every #1 hit single of the 1970s over the course of two days. It was glorious. But five or seven years ago, I might not have reveled in it quite so much. What’s happened? I have a multi-pronged hypothesis about the vectors of nostalgia!

First, for our purposes, I’m thinking of nostalgia as that warm aura of good feelings, tinged with longing, surrounding an idea or thing. I hypothesize that several factors lead to the formation of public nostalgia, including:

  • The release of films and TV shows either about or reviving some aspect of a particular era (see: Mad Men, Dazed and ConfusedThe Last Days of Disco,The Americans, the entire oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino, etc.)

  • The general cultural embrace of a particular period as Classic (see: Classic Rock radio, going strong these 25 years at least, and the more recent development of Old School R&B and Classic Hits of Hip-Hop as radio formats, and the acknowledgement of the 1970s as a golden age for cinema)

  • When whippersnappers such as ourselves and the even-younger trendsetting cohort start sifting through the cultural detritus of earlier ages and making something new out of them (see: the rehabilitation of disco & synthy pop sounds -- so reviled by rockist music critics -- by younger, pro-electro artists such as CHVRCHESBlack KidsNeon TreesSantigoldHAIMBeyonce,Taylor Swift and Walk the Moon, to name just a few).

It’s a process that takes time, and it’s one that we’re going to try to tease apart to make it less opaque and to try to understand our own roles in it as lovers & consumers of culture.Margaret: My most recent entry point to this topic was a combination of encountering -- in quick succession -- (1) a spate of really interesting articles about battles to preserve modernist and brutalist landmarks, (2) an article swooning overJoseph Gordon Levitt’s “pristine 1940s home”, and then (3) this wonderful excerptfrom Mary Norris’s upcoming memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, wherein she describes coming to New York in the 1970s and makes the city (which now feels like an intimidating place where Only The Shiniest Possible Achievers Could Ever Thrive) sound like one big, haphazard incubator for Any Old Slob With a Dime and a Little Know-How. And these things struck me, especially in relation to one another: like, how do we protect the buildings we think right now are ugly, so that they’ll be around for people to realize that they’re beautiful? And what parts of today will become romantic when our Slobs With A Couple Bucks are tomorrow’s Fascinating Adults Writing a Memoir? Is there a way to see today with that kind of golden glow and how do we protect things before we’ve learned entirely to appreciate them?Sophie: I think historically, there’s been a lot of intuition involved. And benign neglect (of those artifacts in the attic, or that neighborhood that managed to escape the wrecking ball because it was a couple blocks away from major construction). And I think preservation, as a broad concept, is changing. Or has to change, to keep pace with the super-fast cycle of cultural production that we’re part of now for a lot of media. This is why digital humanitiesopen data initiatives, and internet preservation (to say nothing of  just everyday website design & archiving) are so important.

Here’s where I provide my super-smooth segue into a note that is both personal and germane to our conversation. My darling Dad, Bill Brookover, is an artist and a retired historic preservationist with many years of experience in exactly this area! We asked him to share his thoughts, excerpted below. (His full take on historic preservation is posted at his blog & is well worth a read, she said with daughterly pride. [Ed. note: It also delighted the Dame who Bill did not hatch.]) Take it away, Dad!

Bill: Preservation of the recent past has always been a tough sell. Historic preservation in the US didn't really take off until the 1960s. It had been a rather genteel affair earlier in the 20th century, focused mostly on Colonial through pre-Civil War history. The rise of urban renewal and routing interstate highways through cities created a tipping point that led to today's preservation landscape.

Historic preservation is always fighting against greed and taste. Americans view their homes as their castles and don't want anyone telling them what to do with their private property. Also, home ownership is one of the largest financial assets most folks have, so it is very touchy.

Each generation loves what their parents hated, and hate what their parents loved. So the preservationists of the 60s and 70s started loving the post-Civil War exuberant Victorian excesses that their parents hated. Think of how many Frank Furness jewels were lost in the 50s by planners who saw them as geegaw-encrusted nightmares. Mid-century modern is coming into vogue, but not so much the brutalist hulks built in the 60s and 70s, which is the problem Paul Rudolf is having with the Orange County Government Center. Likewise, Boston City Hall, a great unloved building.

I agree that nostalgia and architectural preservation success go hand in hand (coupled with economic development, as in Palm Springs). The buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods that are deemed worth saving are the result of a social conversation about who we are and what we value. It takes scholars, tastemakers and everyday citizens to create a social consensus about what to save. For this reason, most preservation ordinances require 30-50 years to pass before sites are considered eligible for protection. And not everything gets saved.

Margaret: The issue of brutalist buildings is pretty near to my heart, as I work in an accursedly ugly one. I have been known to describe it as friends as “a building with the kind of tiny, crenelated windows that only regular attacks by catapult can really justify.” And, of course, Boston City Hall is a proud/loathed example of brutalism at its most outlandishly baroque. It looks like someone took the flying buttresses of eight Gothic cathedrals, rendered them in 8-bit computer software, and then attached them to the bottom of a sandy grey Lego brick, like chicken legs on Baba Yaga’s house [h/t Cory Eckert!]. It is hideous and it is perfect.

In the case of both, you can’t deny that they have STYLE. But whether that style will ever again be to our collective taste is more of a question.Sophie: And taste is hugely problematic as a rationale for preservation, isn’t it? There is so much cultural capital & privilege brought to bear when taste is the driving criterion. It really shouldn’t matter how much preservers of culture do or do not like a thing. If the thing in questions has contributed significantly to the development of a style of anything important to the culture - fashion, language, film, TV, literature, music, design of any kind - it should be preserved, period. I mean, that is the ideal point of awards: to highlight significant contributions to a field, not to highlight Things We Liked Most. THAT’s the difference between Best of The Year Lists and My Annual Favorites lists, right?

Margaret: And yet -- as your dad points out -- everyone’s home is Their Castle and, in the case of these brutalist buildings… some of them aren’t very nice to work in. Like, for example, the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY, one of the buildings whose potential destruction sparked my interest in this subject. It’s striking, that much cannot be denied. But, over the years, its highly specific floorplan has been inevitably compromised, creating a really dreadful work environment for the city employees it houses. Which is a special aspect of preserving highly mannered buildings, whether they be Louis Kahn’s commercial storefronts or these blessedly boxy concrete crates. The more specifically sparse the style, the harder it is to preserve well. Only rarely is it as clear-cut as this case in L.A., where the developers looking to trample Norm’s landmark Googie cafe might as well have the stage direction “twirls mustache in a highly villainous manner” after each one of their comments.

Sophie: I wonder if the lively world of Tumblrs focused on later 20th century architecture will help move forward our thinking about more recent contributions to the field. My Dad pointed us to a very enthusiastic pro-brutalism Tumblr, and there are tons of retrospective Tumblrs out there on all sorts of topics. We’ve compiled some links from our follow lists & would love to hear your recommendations, too!

Margaret: Or is the existence of those Tumblrs evidence that a shift in attitude is already beginning? Like, let’s talk about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s house for a minute. Clicking through that lovely photo album, it’s impossible to resist the house’s gleaming woodwork and quaint RICK-RACK TRIMMED cabinets.
But it’s also impossible to escape the fact that it looks an awful lot like my Grandma’s house in Mount Lebanon, PA, a building which I found extremely mundane my whole life.
So, at some point in the last five years, I experienced a radical shift in my ability to appreciate this home, which I previously would have classified as a “little box made of ticky tacky.” Will that happen for everything, after a set amount of time? Or are there some things that are truly irredeemable?

Sophie: To us, probably some things are. And to our parents’ generation, it’s probably other things, and will be still other things to the current generation of 5 year-olds. I think we can’t ever get away from the issue of taste - it’s going to be a factor, no matter what, and the best we can do is acknowledge it and try to offset it by including other factors in our analyses and by making sure the conversation about these things is as open to as wide a range of viewpoints as possible. I think a lot of this is related to context, too.We have so many wonderful blogs and internet treasure repositories to provide us - everyone! - with opportunities to widen and narrow our lenses. I’m thinking of fashion blogs like the Fug Girls and Tom & Lorenzo - their authors’ encyclopedic knowledge of fashion contextualizes today’s runway and everyday looks within the broader scope of fashion history. (And TLo’s Mad Style Recaps are a prime example of Service Journalism.) The longer we live, the more cultural context we have to draw on and use to make comparisons. As a result, things that looked entirely cringe-inducing to us 10 years ago are things we can maybe see some merit in now (and vice-versa, of course).

Margaret: It’s possible to overstate the value of Mad Men to this sea change, I’m sure, but for me, it has been huge. It’s one thing to see, say, a polyester jumper in a thrift shop, jumbled in with a heap of other discarded items and overlaid by an inescapable noseful of 30-years-of-strangers’-B.O. But it’s an entirely different thing to see that jumper worn, pristine and pressed, by a character I’ve long recognized as stylish, like Joan Holloway or Sally or Megan Draper. When you pair that with Tom and Lorenzo’s insight and contextualization, styles of dress that I might never have imagined admiring all of the sudden become terrifically chic. So: it’s about context, it’s about presentation, but it’s also about education. Almost anything done with intent becomes fascinating once you recognize and understand its motivation.

Sophie: So true. Let’s wrap this up by opening the conversation to our wonderful readers. Y’all. If you read this whole thing, we owe you a sticker or something, and we definitely want to hear your thoughts on this topic. We have so many questions for you:Are you nostalgic for a particular cultural medium and/or era?Is it an era during which you have been alive, or do you cast your longing gaze further back?What era or style do you think is overdue for reconsideration?What things that we loathe from today's pop culture do you think we'll eventually come to cherish?What are your favorite repositories - physical or virtual - for great creations of the past?Come find us on Twitter and we can kibbitz about it!  

Preservationist Woes, Sob!
The Other Shoe Drops On Modernist Landmark | Hidden City Philadelphia: Behind the Battle to Save a Brutalist Building: The Shocking Demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright's Park Avenue Showroom: Louis Kahn’s “Clever House’ in Shambles & For Sale in Suburban Philadelphia: The Fate of LA Googie Landmark in Hands of Developer and Snobby Architect: brief history of Googie architecture from The Smithsonian Magazine: And Some Preservation Successes, Huzzah! Joseph Gordon-Levitt's pristine frozen-in-time home: bPalm Springs, a midcentury haven, comes back to life: can’t talk about any of this without also linking to these:Solid Gold Hits of the 70s! “Holy Writ” by Mary Norris, The New Yorker The Museum at FIT's just-opened exhibit on Lauren Bacall, which features the world's greatest 1970s silk pantsuit along with many other lovely garments.Culture Tumblrs of All Kinds:Architizer’s 20 Best Architecture Tumblrs: Sighs and Whispers, Laura Helms’ Tumblr highlighting high fashion looks of the 1970s & 1980s: Bill Brookover: Dad, Architect, Artist, Teacher: The Nifty Fifties: My Vintage Vogue: Vintage Black Glamour: Of Another Fashion: An Alternative Archive Of the Not-Quite-Hidden But Too Often Ignored Fashion Histories of US Women of Color: Smithsonian Archives of American Art: Story of Pop: the Tumblr for Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!: The Story of Pop from Bill Haley to Beyonce: we leave a crucial site or article out of this list? Let us know! We will post this issue on our Tumblr & add your links, citing you as our source. We've read a lot of Internet on this topic, but not everything, and, you know, sometimes we forget stuff. Like this poor girl:

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